Exercise, once taboo for people diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, is getting a lot of attention by researchers across the globe.
In a study out of Denmark published early this month, researchers concluded that resistance training may slow down the progression of multiple sclerosis (MS) by enhancing brain volume.
For the past 12 years, Ulrik Dalgas, the study’s lead investigator and an associate professor in the department of public health at Aarhus University, has studied the effects of exercise on MS.
While most studies have been about the safety of exercising with MS, now more are focusing on how exercise positively affects the illness.
“Among persons with multiple sclerosis, the brain shrinks markedly faster than normal,” Dalgas told Healthline. “Drugs can counter this development, but we saw a tendency that training further minimizes brain shrinkage in patients already receiving medication. In addition, we saw that several smaller brain areas actually started to grow in response to training.”
Making use of resistance training
Dalgas said the resistance training used for this study was quite traditional.
It included exercise machines targeting the lower extremities, as well as a few exercises for the upper body.
Dalgas added that all exercises were supervised by trainers to ensure they were done correctly.
Some of the exercises included leg presses, knee extensions, and hamstring curls. These traditional exercises were used because they are adjustable and more easily controlled.
Researchers said the final results showed that exercise may protect the nervous system and therefore slow the progression of MS.
At this point, the team is speculating on exactly how and why these exercises seem to help the brain. One possibility could be the increased blood flow to the brain, or because of an increase in brain activity.
Now, another, more complex study is being performed.
Another study beginning
The pilot study had a total of 35 participants, which included control and noncontrol groups.
The findings were interesting enough that researchers are proceeding with a new study involving 90 participants.
This new study, which finished recruiting last week, will include further measurements and new mechanisms in order to gain a better understanding of how and why exercise positively affects those with MS.
In addition to measuring brain volume, this study will look at cognitive function as a result of exercise, said Dalgas.
The main question that people ask Dalgas is if exercise can replace medication. The answer is “definitely a no.”
Dalgas emphasized the importance of using appropriate medicine, and said all his study participants are on a first-line MS treatment such as interferon.
The initial study included mostly high-functioning people with MS. Dalgas said that they are not sure if exercise works for people in a more progressed stage of the disease.
Other studies on exercise
While this study is a first at looking at how exercise specifically affects brain volume, there have been a number of other successful studies looking at how exercise benefits people with MS.
Exercise has been found to significantly improve depression and fatigue among people with MS.
Aquatic exercise training has been found to improve functional capacity, balance, and perceptions of fatigue in women with MS.
And one study concluded that square stepping might be the answer.
Also, a new study taking place in Sao Paolo, Brazil, will be looking at the effects of yoga on people with MS. Researchers will be measuring and analyzing a variety of factors from quality of life to MRI results.
Yoga training will be delivered by a yoga instructor, or through a smartphone application.
While the study is in Brazil, the yoga program will be directed by Garth McLean, an Iyengar yoga senior instructor with MS who lives in California.
The University of Washington (UW) is also currently recruiting for a trial on exercise and MS.
With funding through the National MS Society, the GET Smart study is looking at whether exercise has an impact on cognition in people with MS, specifically the speed of information processing.
The GET (graded exercise training) exercises will be performed at YMCAs in the northwestern region of the United States for six months, and involve about 125 participants.
“We know exercise is beneficial,” Charles H. Bombardier, PhD, professor and head of UW’s Division of Clinical and Neuropsychology, told Healthline. “What we don’t know is how long the effects will last for the patients.”
This study will take a closer look at the lasting effects of exercise on the brain.
Bombardier added that in general, people with MS tend to want to improve their health. They also like to exercise if they able and want help themselves, making them willing and helpful participants.
A clinical trial at the University of Saskatchewan, which just wrapped up, investigated the effects of Pilates and MS on walking, physical performance, and quality of life.
The initial results showed that, “Pilates was beneficial for improving walking performance and some functional tests” said Phil Chilibeck, PhD, a study co-investigator, and a professor in the university’s College of Kinesiology.
This study was based on survey results from people with MS living in Canada, and was made possible by a grant from the MS Society of Canada.
The study participants told the society that what was important to them was finding alternative forms of treatment, such as Pilates, to help them function better.
Chilibeck added that the feedback from doing Pilates was very positive, and patients really enjoyed it, and many saw improvements in their functional abilities.
There is even a clinical trial looking at walking backward vs. forward.
The one thing that all the studies and research have in common is that exercise for people with MS can be beneficial.
Editor’s Note: Caroline Craven is a patient expert living with MS. Her award winning blog is GirlwithMS.com, and she can be found @thegirlwithms.