As recently as twenty years ago, medical researchers thought that even light to moderate physical activity might worsen the effects of multiple sclerosis (MS). But that started to change with the U.S. Surgeon General’s 1996 “Report on Physical Activity and Health,” which pointed out all the ways that significant health benefits could result from even moderate exercise. Exercise and physical activity is cited as a significant lifestyle intervention, but often it is reserved for sometime in the future ‘when we are better’, rather than utilising movement as essential medicine in the present.
In 1996, a group of researchers at the University of Utah first discovered a link between exercise and improved physical health in MS subjects. In the study, which was published in Annals of Neurology, they found that moderate exercise conducted three times a week over a 15-week period had positive effects in the form of improved endurance and strength. The researchers measured factors like maximal aerobic capacity and isometric strength. The current thinking now is that regular cardio workouts that raise the target heart rate and resistance training can help to influence and slow the progress of the disease. Exercise increases the number of mitochondria and thus the body’s ability to produce energy. The more intense, based on very short durations, the greater the effect.
Another study, this one published in 2004 in the journal Neurology, found that weekly aerobic or yoga classes had the impact of reducing secondary measures of fatigue, including loss of balance and coordination. In general, medical practitioners now advise a program of daily movement that emphasises flexibility and a full range of motion for muscles. This can help to reduce the severity of MS symptoms.
Better bone density
Another potential benefit of exercise for persons with MS is the ability to increase bone density. This was corroborated by a December 2010 study published in Neurology Reviews. Any light cardio activity not only builds a stronger heart, but weight-bearing exercise also builds healthier bones. This is especially important for those who may have reduced bone density due to becoming more sedentary.
Better bladder control
According to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, 80 percent of people with MS suffer from weak bladder control. According to medical practitioners, one way to address this problem is via pelvic floor physical therapy. The reason is that these exercises can improve and strengthen the muscles that are responsible for bladder and bowel functions.
Finally, light to moderate exercise can result in better mood and enhanced cognitive performance. A 2004 study found that patients who performed exercise two times per week for eight weeks demonstrated real improvements in quality of life measures, such as social functioning and mood. This has been supported by numerous other studies showing the link between physical health and mood. The feel-good hormones released by the brain during exercise play a significant role here too, especially when it is play-based activity.
Thus, based on the mounting medical and research evidence, a steady regimen of light to moderate physical activity can go a long way toward reducing the severity of MS symptoms. For many people with MS, walking, swimming or strength training a few times a week can lead to a drastic improvement in the overall quality of life, including less fatigue and a better overall mood. For others a more precise exercise prescription taking into account individualised issues are required.
Darryl Edwards, is a Movement Coach, Natural Lifestyle Educator, nutritionist and creator of the Primal Play Method™. Darryl developed the Primal Play methodology to inspire others to make activity fun while getting healthier, fitter and stronger in the process.
Darryl is the owner of Fitness Explorer Training and author of several books including Paleo Fitness and Paleo from A to Z. His work has been published in titles such as Men’s Health, Women’s Health, Elle Magazine, Men’s Fitness and featured on the BBC documentary Eat to Live Forever. Find him on Facebook at facebook.com/DarrylFEdwards Twitter @fitnessexplorer and Instagram @fitnessexplorer