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Exercise proven to help in MS

David Schley

Research shows that exercise can improve many symptoms common in MS and improve wellbeing. We’re now working out what exercises are most helpful and how to help people with MS get active.

Exercise gives you energy

It may sound odd, but exercise actually makes you feel less tired. Research has shown that keeping active can help fight MS fatigue. We don’t know exactly why this is, but studies have shown that exercise can change the connections between nerve cells in the part of the brain thought to be involved in MS fatigue.

What exercise is best for MS?

Right now there’s only limited evidence about the value of different types of exercise. So the best advice currently is to do what works for you.

A comparison of a large number of studies found that aerobic exercise (exercises that get your heart rate up) reduces levels of fatigue by about half on average, versus no exercise, and can be more effective than medication. We’re funding Professor John Saxton at the University of East Anglia to test whether a resistance exercise programme (using exercise bands) could work as treatment for fatigue in MS.

Heat sensitivity is common in MS, meaning that a rise in body temperature can make symptoms worse. And this can make exercise an unwelcome suggestion. Research suggests that aqua-therapy might be a good alternative, since it keeps your body cool compared with exercising on land. The benefits of the exercise itself appear to be the same.

Studies have shown that core stability training, weight training, and posture activities like Tai Chi can help people with MS who have balance problems. Our researchers also found that computer games systems like the Nintendo Wii could be adapted for special MS exercises that improve balance, pain and fatigue.

How can people with MS get enough exercise?

Exercise is good for everyone, but most of us struggle to do enough. And that’s before you factor in the extra challenges of MS.

We’ve developed a special programme with experts to help people get more active. Active Together is a range of work-out videos designed to match your ability. So whether you feel your mobility is not affected by your symptoms, have trouble walking, or use a wheelchair, there’s a work-out video for you.

Dr Jennifer Ryan at Brunel University is developing a new way to support people with MS to get more active. Participants will test Jennifer's programme using pedometers to track their progress, as well as testing how easy it is to stick to.

Getting physically active can be particularly hard for people with advanced MS. At Cardiff University Professor Monica Busse is working with physiotherapists and people living with progressive MS to develop and test a new web-based lifestyle programme. We hope it will help everyone achieve a level of exercise that's right for them.

Can exercise prevent MS?

There's no evidence that exercise directly reduces the risk of getting MS. A US study involving over 190,000 women found that exercise didn't protect them against developing the condition.

However, animal studies suggest that physical activity can be good for the brain, as well as promoting general health. One study found that mice with brain damage had better levels of myelin repair if they were physically active.

And we know that exercise contributes to a healthy lifestyle, which could be beneficial in the fight against MS. For example, we know that obesity increases the risk of developing the condition.

Find out how we can help you to move more with MS

This blog first appeared in Research Matters magazine. To receive Research Matters by post please contact [email protected] about subscription. You can also download the full issue for free.