Managing MS through physical activity

We all know without a doubt that exercise is good for us. The abundance of health benefits associated with a steady exercise regimen has made exercise an ideal complementary treatment for various diseases. But is this the case for MS?

For years, neurologists have advised people with MS to avoid physical activity as it could worsen neurological symptoms. However, new evidence suggests that exercise is, in fact, highly beneficial for people with MS and can lead to marked improvements in:

– Mobility
– Fatigue
– Depression
– Cognitive functioning

Despite the surge in scientific data reporting positive effects of exercise in MS, the fact remains that fewer than 20% of people with MS engage in adequate amounts of physical activity and the level of activity decreases over time. From speaking to many people affected by MS, I can understand why they would not be so inclined to head out to a gym or sign up for a structured exercise treatment program given the physical challenges they face on a daily basis.

According to Dr. Robert Motl, who presented on exercise in MS at ECTRIMS, there may be an effective way to boost physical activity in people with MS without having to impose a structured, supervised exercise training program.

He proposed that incorporating at least 30 minutes of physical activity each day through self-selected undertakings like housework, gardening, walking the dog, playing with the kids etc. can be just as effective as regular bouts of exercise. This “lifestyle activity”, as Dr. Motl calls it, is based on the idea that a person will be more likely to do something if they believe that they can do it.

This research represents a shift in MS rehabilitation and management of symptoms. Turning to social and behavioural sciences can help in the development of methods that will not only enhance physical activity in people MS, but introduce positive self-reinforcement that will lead to sustained healthy beahviour versus simply participating in a prescribed exercise training program.

Another interesting study presented at ECTRIMS by a group from the UK looked at the effects of Pilates-based core stability training in ambulant people with MS. Dr. Fox and colleagues reported that this group of exercises – based on tai chi, yoga, and gymnastics – resulted in significant improvements in walking speed and balance. Although the results are preliminary, they speak strongly to the observation that incorporating well-known exercise techniques can have a positive impact on overall management of MS.

What are we doing to promote physical activity in MS?

The MS Society recognizes that encouraging physical activity in people with MS is an important priority. This was reinforced during my conversations with MS Society stakeholders across the country last year at the Research Priorities Discussion.

Recently, the MS Society played an important role in the development of The Canadian Physical Activity Guidelines for Adults with MS. The evidence-based guidelines were generated by a research team led by Drs. Amy Latimer-Cheung of Queen’s University and Kathleen Martin Gillis of McMaster University.

The document outlines how adults with MS aged 18-64 years can include safe, appropriate and effective physical activity into their daily routine, while advising on the minimum frequency, intensity, duration and type of physical activity necessary for improved fitness.

We also recently worked closely with the Canadian Society for Exercise Physiology on the creation of the Get Fit Toolkit, which provides tips on how to jumpstart an active lifestyle and ways to overcome barriers to achieving fitness goals.

You can read more about the Guidelines and Get Fit Toolkit here.

Categories Research
Dr. Karen Lee

National vice-president, research, past MS researcher, and PhD in Cellular and Molecular Medicine from University of Ottawa. Leads the MS Society's research program to find the cure for MS and improve the quality of life for people affected by the disease.

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