Objectives: Exercise is important in RA management. However, RA patients are less active than the general population. This qualitative study explores the perceptions of patients regarding the effects of exercise on joint health.
Methods: A purposive sample of 12 female and 6 male RA outpatients [age: 23-76 years; disease duration: 2.5 months to 33 years; HAQ score: 0-2.13] participated in four moderated focus groups. The main questions addressed were: (i) How do you feel exercise affects your joints?; and (ii) What affects your exercise behaviour? Transcriptions were independently analysed with 455 meaning units identified. An inductive, thematic analysis was conducted using established techniques. Discussion with a third analyst contributed to consensus validation.
Results: Sixteen constructs emerged, clustering into five themes, reflecting the issues relating to exercise and joint health in RA patients. Emergent themes were: 'health professionals showing a lack of exercise knowledge', 'not knowing what exercise should be done', 'worry about causing harm to joints', 'not wanting to exercise as joints hurt' and 'having to exercise because it is helpful'.
Conclusions: RA patients demonstrated awareness of the advantages of exercise for their joints, both experientially and through education. However, they perceived that health professionals lacked certainty and clarity regarding specific exercise recommendations and the occurrence of joint damage. Thus, to enhance patient-centred exercise prescription in the RA population, uncertainties surrounding joint health, pain symptoms and exercise specificity need to be addressed, alongside continual emphasis of exercise benefits.