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Patients with arthritis are at a higher risk for being obese. Why, and what can you do if you are obese and have arthritis?

Arthritis is a disease that affects the joints and causes joint inflammation, pain and swelling. Unfortunately, patients with arthritis are at a higher risk of developing several diseases, including diabetes, heart disease and obesity.

Obesity, as well as other lifestyle factors, are associated with the development of osteoarthritis. These other lifestyle factors include:

  • Inactivity of joints
  • Lack of exercise
  • Muscle weakness
  • Joint injury
Obesity is a particularly terrible problem in the western world, where rates of obesity continue to rise. Obesity leads to numerous health conditions that can severely affect a person’s ability to move. It also causes joint pain. Thus, arthritis and obesity influence one another and make a terrible combination.

In fact, as the population continues to age and get heavier, arthritis has become a leading cause of disability all over the world. In 1981, three percent of arthritis cases were caused primarily by obesity. By 2002, the number of cases of obesity-induced arthritis increased to 18 percent. Currently, 10 percent of Europeans over the age of 65 have evidence of osteoarthritis. Over two percent of Americans over 55 suffer disabling pain because they have knee osteoarthritis.

An obese person is at a 60 percent greater risk of developing arthritis compared to people at a healthy weight. Furthermore, one study showed that 72 percent of people who underwent joint replacement surgery were obese.

Obesity is associated with an increase in the risk of knee osteoarthritis. However, it has a lower effect on disease progression. Research has also found a weak association between hip and hand osteoarthritis and obesity. This is because obesity increases the stress that is placed on joints, such as knees. Thus, patients that are obese are more likely to develop arthritis of the knee.

Additionally, some studies have also indicated a link between obesity and a higher risk of rheumatoid arthritis. Furthermore, obesity is associated with high levels of uric acid, which leads to an increased risk of developing gout.

So why and how is there an association between these two diseases?

The basic reasoning why obese patients are more likely to develop knee osteoarthritis is that having extra weight on the body adds an extra burden that is borne by the knees. When walking or putting our weight on a single leg with each step, we are actually putting a force of about three to six times our body weight on the knee joint. Similarly, we put three times the force of our body weight on our hip.

Therefore, being just 10 pounds above a healthy weight adds about 30 to 60 pounds of force with every step you take. These forces are even higher when we do high-impact activities, such as running. Hence, decades of joint wear and tear from regular activities are only exacerbated when you add extra weight on the joints.

Additionally, large amounts of fat tissue actually produce hormones as well as other factors that affect joints, leading to joint inflammation. One of the hormones is the obesity-associated hormone leptin, which has been shown to play a role in obesity-induced knee osteoarthritis.

Thus, doctors recommend that obese patients with arthritis lose weight.

So what are the benefits of losing weight for patients with arthritis?

There are several different benefits associated with losing weight in patients with arthritis. Just like carrying extra weight on the body puts a strain on the joints, taking off that extra weight will reduce the strain, thereby lowering the risk of developing arthritis or improving pain levels if you already have arthritis. In fact, even losing a small amount of weight can lead to improved joint health and decreased joint pain. One study showed that women who lost a mere 11 pounds decreased their risk of developing knee osteoarthritis by 50 percent.

These are some healthy ways to lose weight:

  • Walking
  • Running
  • Jogging
  • Playing tennis
  • Exercise machines (such as elliptical and stair-climbers)
  • Swimming
  • Water aerobics
  • Dance
  • Yoga
  • Pilates
  • Tai Chi
  • Biking

For patients with arthritis, the best activities to do are those that have low-impact on their joints. These are walking, elliptical, swimming, water aerobics, yoga, tai chi and biking. If you don’t already have arthritis or joint pain and are not obese, then feel free to do any of the physical activities outlined above or any other physical activity that gets your heart rate up and has you exercising.

While it is important to exercise regularly and have a healthy diet, you need to make sure to be careful which types of exercises you conduct. For people who are overweight or obese, some exercises can actually increase the wear and tear of joints. Therefore, it is best to have a physical therapist that can design an individual exercise regimen for you. The physical therapist will take into account your weight and your arthritis and design an effective plan in which you can exercise safely, lose weight and still maintain proper functioning of joints.

  • Stavropoulos-Kalinoglou, Antonios, et al. "Obesity in rheumatoid arthritis." Rheumatology 50.3 (2010): 450-462.
  • Magliano, Malgorzata. "Obesity and arthritis." Menopause international 14.4 (2008): 149-154.
  • Stavropoulos-Kalinoglou, Antonios, et al. "Redefining overweight and obesity in rheumatoid arthritis patients." Annals of the rheumatic diseases 66.10 (2007): 1316-1321.
  • Photo courtesy of SteadyHealth

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