Health research at Medibank: Simple physical activity can have a ripple effect for osteoarthritis
Can better health outcomes be achieved for Australians with knee osteoarthritis through simple, cost-effective measures rather than invasive and sometimes debilitating surgery?
Osteoarthritis is one of the leading causes of chronic pain, disability and lost productivity in Australia, costing the health system $3.75 billion and the economy around $22 billion annually.
The current clinical guidelines recommend education and advice on osteoarthritis, exercise and physical activity and weight management as the best ways to manage osteoarthritis.
But for many Australians, these types of treatments are never offered, or considered too hard.
The University of Tasmania’s Associate Professor Dawn Aitken says many patients with knee osteoarthritis feel overwhelmed by the challenge of regular exercise and are apprehensive about the pain new movement might cause.
“Many patients fear an increase in joint pain if they start exercising, when often it is the best remedy to alleviate their pain and improve their knee function,” Associate Professor Aitken said.
“We all know physical activity is good and will help with osteoarthritis symptoms but the uptake is not ideal, even when doctors encourage us to exercise. Patients with osteoarthritis of the knee need support, accountability and encouragement to find enjoyable exercise options, which is why parkrun is perfect.”
A pilot study by the University’s Menzies Institute for Medical Research has examined the feasibility of using parkrun as a positive, community-spirited setting to increase physical activity participation in knee osteoarthritis patients.
Established in the UK in 2004 and Australia in 2011, parkrun has become a global phenomenon with free, weekly 5km walk/run events held in public parks in more than a dozen countries. It addresses many of the most common barriers to physical activity participation as it is free, accessible, requires no specialised skills, training, equipment or clothing, and its philosophy is to encourage physical activity in a socially supportive, positive and inclusive environment.
“We need to support patients to find an activity that they can be guided through and supported to participate in without pain. Time is a barrier too, but because parkrun is the same time every week it’s easy to book it in. Group activities are easier to be committed to because there’s the social aspect of others to meet, helping to keep people motivated,” Associate Professor Aitken said.
The pilot study wasn’t advertised as parkrun participation, but rather, framed as a physical activity study to alleviate knee osteoarthritis. When participants were initially interviewed, there was some apprehension on hearing the word ‘run’, but researchers talked participants through the benefits, coaching them on overcoming their fears, and the options to walk or do a shorter circuit (full parkrun circuits are 5km).
The participants were asked to take part in four parkruns in a row and were interviewed regularly to rate their pain and functionality.
“One of the big positives of parkrun is that it’s free and happens regularly. Anyone can join at one of the hundreds of locations around Australia, including five in southern Tasmania alone. Not everyone is an elite runner; there are families, children, older people, some people walking, some running, and it’s not a race. You can choose to track your time each week so you can start to set goals for yourself and your own physical fitness, but it’s not a competition,” Associate Professor Aitken said.
“The majority of participants were able to complete the course each Saturday, demonstrating that knee osteoarthritis patients are able to take on this kind of activity and stick with it to see results.”
Results will be finalised in 2021, but the anecdotal feedback suggests parkrun participation is feasible, safe and suitable for osteoarthritis patients.
As a result of the pilot study, Associate Professor Aitken is developing a randomised controlled trial comparing parkrun to another standardised exercise to show parkrun is either equivalent or superior in alleviating knee osteoarthritis and knee pain symptoms.
“We hope we are able to say to GPs, ‘you can prescribe this to patients and there will be a positive impact’,” Associate Professor Aitken said.
This research project is proudly supported by the Medibank Better Health Foundation. The Foundation is committed to better health outcomes for all Australians and we fund research into key areas of need for our customers and the broader Australian community. For more information, click here.
Medibank is delivering a program designed in partnership with the University of Melbourne to help eligible Medibank members with painful knee osteoarthritis to reduce knee pain, improve their quality of life, and lower the chances of requiring joint replacement surgery. Through Better Knee, Better Me™, eligible members with chronic knee pain will be supported by a 12-month program combining personalised plans for exercise, weight loss and pain management to help you get back to doing the things you love. For more information, click here.