Taking a Fresh Look at Exercise Training for Progressive MS

Last updated: October 2018

We all know the benefits of exercise. It reduces the risk of cardiovascular disease, improves our mood, strengthens our bones, reduces the risk of some diseases, helps control our weight and reduces the risk of some cancers.

The same applies when living with MS, but sometimes getting the exercise we need is easier said than done. Symptoms such as fatigue, spasticity, weakness, numbness, bowel and bladder issues, vertigo, vision or mood problems prevent us from moving at all.

According to Dr. Fred Lublin, a neurologist and director of the Corinne Goldsmith Dickinson Center for Multiple Sclerosis at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City, “Exercise has beneficial effects even if you have some physical limitations from your MS.”

Not one size fits all

“Just as MS is a very individualized disease,” Kathleen Costello, a nurse practitioner and associate vice president of clinical care at the Johns Hopkins Hospital says, “no one size or form of exercise fits all." She suggests seeking the help of a physical therapist to find an exercise regimen that suits your specific needs.

With all of the literature about MS that we read there’s little said about exercise for progressive MS. Newer data shows that among the 80% to 90% of patients initially diagnosed with relapsing-remitting MS many will transition into secondary progressive MS.

Approximately 10% to 20% of patients are diagnosed with primary-progressive MS.

These large numbers demonstrate the urgent need for more studies focused on exercise for progressive MS.

A closer look at the research

That’s why I was happy to find an article titled “Is Exercise Training Beneficial in Progressive Multiple Sclerosis?” by Lara A. Pilutti, Ph.D.; Thomas A. Edwards, BKin in the March/April 2017 edition of The International Journal of MS Care (click here to read the article in full.)

The gist of the article is about work that was done to see if there’s any potential for exercise training for people living with progressive MS. Nine previously examined trials were looked at to see if there’s any benefit in exercise training for fitness, symptoms, and quality of life outcomes.

The authors' conclusion was they believe exercise is a viable solution that needs to be further studied.

“Future research should involve well-designed, randomized clinical trials with appropriate sample sizes and control conditions to establish the safety, feasibility, and therapeutic efficacy of exercise training in progressive MS.”

In the meantime here are some exercises people with progressive MS may be able to do:

  • Chair Yoga - A gentle form of yoga practiced while sitting in a chair or using a chair for support.
  • Hand biking - A three wheel bicycle that's propelled with your hands instead of your feet.
  • Swimming - Many local National Multiple Sclerosis Society chapters offer swim programs for people with MS. Call your local chapter to find out if one is near you.
  • Stretching - Adaptive yoga and adaptive tai chi offer slow, gentle movements while sitting.
  • Resistance or Strength Training - Work with a physical therapist to create an individualized plan or purchase resistance bands (these are inexpensive) and stretch at home. You can find videos on Youtube to help you learn how.

Listen to your MS and don’t push yourself. But keep in mind that on good days even five or ten minutes of any exercise is better than none at all.

My hope is that someday there will be more exercise programs available for people with progressive MS. And, of course, a cure.

NOTE: Please consult with your doctor before starting any exercise program.

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