Objective: To evaluate the impact of a 2-year program of strength training on muscle strength, bone mineral density (BMD), physical function, joint damage, and disease activity in patients with recent-onset (<2 years) rheumatoid arthritis (RA).
Methods: In this prospective trial, 70 RA patients were randomly assigned to perform either strength training (all major muscle groups of the lower and upper extremities and trunk, with loads of 50-70% of repetition maximum) or range of motion exercises (without resistance) twice a week; all were encouraged to engage in recreational activities 2-3 times a week. All patients completed training diaries (evaluated bi-monthly) and were examined at 6-month intervals. All were treated with medications to achieve disease remission. Maximum strength of the knee extensors, trunk flexors and extensors, and grip strength was measured with dynamometers. BMD was measured at the femoral neck and lumbar spine by dual x-ray densitometry. Disease activity was determined by the Disease Activity Score, the extent of joint damage by the Larsen score, and functional capacity by the Health Assessment Questionnaire (HAQ); walking speed was also measured.
Results: Sixty-two patients (31 per group) completed the study. Strength training compliance averaged 1.4-1.5 times/week. The maximum strength of all muscle groups examined increased significantly (19-59%) in the strength-training group, with statistically significant improvements in clinical disease activity parameters, HAQ scores, and walking speed. While muscle strength, disease activity parameters, and physical function also improved significantly in the control group, the changes were not as great as those in the strength-training group. BMD in the femoral neck and spine increased by a mean +/- SD of 0.51 +/- 1.64% and by 1.17 +/- 5.34%, respectively, in the strength-training group, but decreased by 0.70 +/- 2.25% and 0.91 +/- 4.07% in the controls. Femoral neck BMD in the 17 patients with high initial disease activity (and subsequent use of oral glucocorticoids) remained constantly at a statistically significantly lower level than that in the other 45 patients.
Conclusion: Regular dynamic strength training combined with endurance-type physical activities improves muscle strength and physical function, but not BMD, in patients with early RA, without detrimental effects on disease activity.