Medicare studies exercise regimen for osteoarthritis

Fit & Strong! program

A Fit & Strong! class. The program has been proven effective for older adults with osteoarthritis. (Click on image to download.)

Fit & Strong!, an exercise program tailored to break the cycle of weakening and pain in older adults with osteoarthritis and developed at the University of Illinois at Chicago, may soon be covered by Medicare.

The program has been proven effective for older adults with osteoarthritis, the most common chronic condition keeping older adults from active daily life. Osteoarthritis in the weight-bearing joints of the legs can force people to become sedentary to avoid pain. In turn, the muscles around the joints weaken and walking gets even more difficult, causing more pain, stiffness, and often weight-gain.

Fit & Strong! is one of seven wellness programs nationally that are currently under evaluation by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, the federal agency responsible for determining which treatments and programs will be covered. Results are expected in the spring of 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.

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,” she said.

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 and were also less depressed and anxious than they were before entering the program. Hughes said the decline in walking-speed that naturally occurs with age was reversed among Fit and Strong! participants who were at highest risk.

Fit & Strong! is now offered in 11 senior centers in Chicago; at multiple sites in Cook and the collar counties; and in six states.

For more information or to find a program near you, visit Fit & Strong! or call (312) 413-9810.

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