Exercise program fights arthritis, keeps older adults on the move

Fit & Strong! program

Fit & Strong!, developed in the UIC Center for Research on Health and Aging, is offered in 11 senior centers in Chicago, plus locations in Cook and nearby counties and in six other states.


Fit & Strong!, a UIC-developed exercise program that breaks the cycle of weakening and pain in older adults with osteoarthritis, is so effective that it is being considered for coverage by Medicare.

Osteoarthritis is the most common chronic condition keeping older adults from active daily life. People who have osteoarthritis in the weight-bearing joints of the legs become sedentary to avoid pain. In turn, the muscles around the joints weaken and walking gets even more difficult, causing more pain, stiffness and weight gain.

Fit & Strong! is one of seven wellness programs being evaluated by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, the federal agency that decides which treatments and programs will be covered. Results are expected in spring 2017.

“Medicare has always paid for expensive acute care, including hip and joint replacements, but thanks in part to changing attitudes and the Affordable Care Act, there is a shift towards preventing disease and keeping people healthy to begin with,” says Susan Hughes, director for the Center for Research on Health and Aging at UIC’s Institute for Health Research and Policy.

Fit & Strong! program

A study of Fit & Strong! participants 18 months after the program ended found that benefits, including increased strength and mobility, continued.

Projections indicate that Medicare could be paying $50 billion per year for hip and knee replacements by 2030.

“It is vitally important to support effective health promotion programs that also improve function and quality of life without the costs and side effects of surgery or prescription drugs for pain management,” Hughes said. “Making the program reimbursable through Medicare would substantially increase access to this effective program that has lasting benefits keeping older adults active, fit and engaged.”

Fit & Strong! participants meet three times a week for eight weeks for group classes that include an hour of exercise to promote flexibility, aerobic and lower extremity strengthening and a half-hour of education and discussion to motivate participants to keep coming back and to deal with barriers to physical activity after the program ends.

“We know that exercise and physical activity are important in reducing pain and improving mobility in people with arthritis, but we also knew that sticking to such a program might be a challenge,” said Hughes.

A study of more than 400 Fit & Strong! participants found they continued to exercise and maintained increased leg strength and mobility up to 18 months after the program ended. They were less depressed and anxious than they were before entering the program. The decline in walking speed that naturally occurs with age was reversed among the Fit and Strong! participants at highest risk.

Fit & Strong! is now offered in 11 senior centers in Chicago, multiple sites in Cook and the collar counties and six states. For more information or to find a program, visit the website or call 312-413-9810.



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