Exercise and Physical Activity Have Multiple Benefits for People with MS

Two unrelated open-access studies, published recently online, emphasize how exercise may benefit people living with multiple sclerosis. One study demonstrated that physical activity is associated with increased brain volume and the other showed that increased physical activity is associated with improved mental health and higher quality of life for MS patients.

Physical activity and brain volume

In a recent study published in Behavioural Neurology, a team of researchers from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign identified an association between increased physical activity and higher volumes of brain tissue as measured by MRI scan in people with MS.

Physical activity was measured by an accelerometer worn for 7 consecutive days with data categorized by time spent in sedentary behavior, light physical activity, and moderate-to-vigorous physical activity. Data collected on days where the participant failed to wear the device for ≥ 10 hours without periods of inactivity exceeding 60 minutes (indicative of noncompliance) were excluded from the analysis.

Results from the study, involving 39 people with MS (30 female, 9 male; age 48.7 ± 9.6; disease duration 10.3 ± 8.5; EDSS 4.5 ± 2.5; and 77% with relapsing-remitting MS disease course), provide the first evidence that moderate-to-vigorous physical activity is associated, not only with volumes of whole brain gray and white matter but also, with deep gray matter structures that are involved in motor and cognitive functions in MS.1

In other words, moderate-to-vigorous physical activity (MVPA) seems to protect against brain atrophy in people with MS, including areas of the brain connected to motor and cognitive functions. No associations were found between sedentary behavior and light physical activity with MRI outcomes.

Authors conclude that this study “supports the possibility that enhancing physical activity, specifically MVPA, could contribute to brain health in people with MS [which is] important considering brain volume is correlated with disability status and cognitive impairment in MS.”

Physical activity and mental health

In a recent study published in the International Journal of Molecular Sciences, a team of researchers from Germany identified an association between increased physical activity and improved mental health in 265 people with MS (197 female, 68 male; age 39.4 ± 9.2; EDSS 1.6 ± 0.9), particularly in those without limitation of physical function (indicated by an unlimited walking distance) or mood disorders.

Previous studies have demonstrated positive associations between physical activity and health-related quality of life in MS patients, which are commonly reduced compared to healthy individuals. Researchers in this study were primarily interested in the relationship between physical activity and mental health in MS patients without limitation of physical function, since limitations of physical function may also influence physical activity and quality of life.

Health-related quality of life (HRQoL) comprises physical, psychological and social aspects of life influenced by health status. Potential explanations for lower HRQoL in MS patients include the unpredictable and progressive course of the disease, disease onset during younger adult years, ineffectiveness and adverse effects of disease-modifying therapies. Symptoms such as physical disability, fatigue, depression, cognitive impairments, chronic pain as well as bladder, bowel, and sexual dysfunction have been shown to be negatively associated with HRQoL in MS.

Results from this study showed that active and inactive patients did not differ considerably in physical function. However, remarkable and significant differences were found regarding vitality, general health perception, social functioning and mental health, all in favor of physically active patients.2

Researchers conclude that physical activity and exercise have considerable health benefits for MS patients and could serve as prophylactic treatment in order to maintain mental health and self-efficacy of otherwise healthy MS patients.

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