By Katti Gray
Maintaining the ability to get around on their own is often a top priority for people with multiple sclerosis (MS), and exercise may be the key to staying mobile.
Among moderately to severely disabled MS patients, exercise raised both their walking ability and spirits in a new, preliminary study. Researchers wrote that the results suggest the need for further research into the potential benefits of exercise for MS patients.
Leading the trial was a team of researchers from the Institute for Neuroimmunology and Clinical Multiple Sclerosis Research and the Competence Center for Sports and Exercise Medicine at University Hospital-Eppendorf in Hamburg, Germany.
Researchers assigned 47 patients whose MS — a disease of the nervous system that causes fatigue, muscular problems and other issues — was getting progressively worse to one of two groups. Each member of the first group spent eight to 10 weeks exercising on either a stationary bicycle, a rowing machine or a set of revolving handle bars for two to three times each. At the start, their sessions lasted 15 minutes but eventually became 45 minutes long.
The second group was placed on an exercise wait list.
Researchers weighed the feasibility of having MS patients exercise, partly by tracking the number of people who began the program but dropped out without finishing. Five patients (10.6 percent) did drop out. Mainly, they cited fatigue and the physical difficulty of exercising as their reasons for not finishing.
Each of the 42 patients who completed their exercise programs bettered their aerobic fitness, researchers wrote. Improving their aerobic fitness — cardiovascular and respiratory strength and endurance — was the main goal of having MS patients exercise, researchers wrote.
Secondary goals included improving their ability to walk and refining cognitive skills related to memory, such as recalling certain words over a limited period of time. Lessening patients level of physical exhaustion and mental depression, also common symptoms of MS, were other secondary goals, researchers wrote.
Patients did shorten the amount of time it took them to complete a six-minute walk, and they self-reported that they felt less depressed by answering a standardized test about mental health.
"This study indicated that aerobic training is feasible and could be beneficial for patients with progressive MS. Larger exercise studies are needed to confirm the effect on cognition," researchers wrote.
They added that, "While the short-term effects of our exercise training study are encouraging, it remains unknown whether these effects can be sustained over longer periods of time. Maintenance of exercise in MS remains a major issue and a better understanding of the barriers involved, as well as development of effective strategies to overcome these, are needed."
"Exercise not only slows cognitive decline, but increases fitness and enhances quality of life in individuals suffering from multiple sclerosis," said Rusty Gregory, a certified wellness coach, personal trainer and dailyRx Contributing Expert.
"It does these things by strengthening the cardiovascular/muscular system and reducing inflammation in MS patients. The patient's exercise program should be specific and unique to the needs of the individual," he said.
Thus far, there is no cure for MS. Much of the healthcare focus has been placed on slowing the progression of the disease and its damaging effects on the nervous system.
This trial was published online October 24 in Multiple Sclerosis Journal.