To determine the effect of leisure time and work-related physical activity on changes in physical functioning among 3,554 nationally representative survey respondents, ages 53–63 years in 1994, with arthritis and joint symptoms, interviewed in the Health and Retirement Study (HRS).
In 1992–1994, light and vigorous exercise items were empirically categorized into recommended, insufficient, and inactive leisure time physical activity levels using data from the HRS. Leisure and work-related physical activity levels in 1994 were used to predict 1996 functional decline or improvement, controlling for baseline functional difficulties, health status, sociodemographic characteristics, and behavioral risk factors.
Whereas 29.7% of respondents reported functional declines in 1996, 38.6% of those with baseline difficulties in 1994 reported improvement. Compared with inactive respondents, recommended and insufficient leisure time physical activity were equally protective against functional decline (odds ratio [OR] 0.59 and 0.62, respectively; P < 0.0001). Higher levels of physical activity were also modestly associated with functional improvement among respondents with baseline functional difficulties (OR 1.47, P = 0.05 and OR 1.45, P = 0.01, respectively). Work-related physical activity was not a significant predictor of decline or improvement.
Given the high prevalence of arthritis, even modest increases in rates of lifestyle physical activity among older adults could make a substantial contribution to disability-free life expectancy.