Exercise for MS: Working Out More than Your Body

Patient Expert

If MS researchers’ attitudes about physical exercise and the disease were on a religious scale when I was diagnosed, I would call it an agnostic phase. Just a few years prior, many friends with MS that I know were advised against physical exertion. This would have been hard-core non-belief by the professionals.

Today, however, we can read a growing body of research that says that exercise is not only ‘not bad’ for MS, but there is a full-blown tent revival on. Researchers are preaching the gospel of regular exercise for people with our disease.

And it’s not why you might think.

Why exercise is good for MS

I have always been of the belief that a healthy body will recover better and faster than an unhealthy one.  It was probably the lowest rung on the ladder of belief, but it made sense to me.

A piece published in Neurorehabilitation and Neural Repair tells how some researchers believe that regular exercise may do much more than keep muscles toned and the cardiovascular system strong.  These researchers, from the Kessler Foundation, plan to set up matrix to measure the effect of exercise on neuroplasticity.

Neuroplasticity is the brain’s ability to adapt.  Everyone relies on their central nervous system (CNS) to be able to adapt and learn new ways to do things and even learn new ways to learn.  For someone with MS, however, it’s a way of finding detour around damaged areas of CNS to still get a signal through.

Last month I heard an MS rehabilitation specialist from Switzerland speak, and his research was very powerful.

One of the most emphatic statements Dr. Jens Mansi said that day was that “Exercise will not cause an exacerbation,”  If one does not practice cooling before, during and after a work-out, it could lead to a short stint of Uhthoff’s Phenomenon, but not an MS attack.  That’s one of the many MS myths out there busted!

Then Dr. Mansi went on to speak of the neuroplasticity aspects of an exercise program for people with MS.

He had the room at this point, that’s for sure.  The idea that something that we know we should be doing for our general health might assist with the way we cope with the disease on a neurologic level was intriguing.

What you should know about exercise and MS

Then he let go a succession of three bombs which had the room really swooning.

First, there is significant evidence that neurotransmission may be enhanced by exercise.

That means that once the signal finds its way around damage (via neuroplasticity) the rate of transmission, which can be affected by MS, can be improved with exercise. Particularly if one is able to engage large muscles in a workout, it seems that the chemicals that help send nerve impulses from brain to body are somehow enhanced.

The next revelation was the indication that the level of certain “good guy” chemicals in the brain are elevated during and for a good period after a workout.  These chemicals show evidence of neuroprotection.

This means that along with preventing so many physical ailments, regular trips to the gym (or physiotherapy, or cycling, etc.,) could help fend off the cells which attack the myelin covering of our brain’s neurons.  Just as arms, legs, and heart can be strengthened with training, so too, it would appear, can our targeted nerve fibers themselves.

By now, you can imagine the room was ready to head to the hotel gym and start strengthening and defending.  That’s when it got really interesting.

Though in the early stages, research suggests that high-intensity interval training – full-out, non-stop, 100 percent intensity for two minutes – might have equal benefit to a 20-minute workout, such studies are ongoing, and the Kessler Foundation report may give an even better understanding of the hows and whys of the chemistry of MS and exercise.

It is obvious that many people with MS cannot workout in the same manner as people without the disease.  Likewise, someone with MS might not be able to exercise the same way today or tomorrow as they did yesterday or the day before. This is where a professional physiotherapist with an understanding of the disease can help.  There are machines which can assist legs that don’t work so well or arms that have their own ideas.

The point of the paper and the video linked above, is that exercise is more than something everyone “should do.”  It’s something that people with MS can do in order to improve their condition today and improve their future.

Wishing you and your family the best of health.



See more helpful articles:

Letter to the Media from an MS Patient

7 Celebrities Living with Multiple Sclerosis

How Music Can Help MS