Research Summary: Environmental temperature and exercise modality independently impact central and muscle fatigue among people with multiple sclerosis

Whilst more and more studies are suggesting that increased physical activity and exercise can provide benefits for people with multiple sclerosis, they don’t always necessarily take into account the difficulties and negative experiences that many people with MS might face when undertaking these programs.  This is why studies that aim to improve our understanding of ways that negative side-effects of exercise can be lessened are really important.

Recently, a team of scientists from Memorial University in Canada looked into two possible areas that may have an impact on the experiences of people with multiple sclerosis when undertaking physical activity.  Specifically, they were interested in finding out whether the temperature of the room where the exercise was taking place was important, as well as whether the type of activity led to different outcomes.  For the styles of exercise, they used a treadmill (where body weight was supported) compared to a total body stepper machine.  The results of this study were published in December 2017 in Multiple Sclerosis Journal – Experimental, Translational and Clinical.  The abstract for this study can be read here.

The findings showed that exercising in a cooler room temperature was useful for minimising the effects of central fatigue in people with multiple sclerosis.  This result will probably correspond to what many people in our community have experienced personally.  We have had several discussions on social media (particularly around hydrotherapy), where a number of people have expressed that warm, humid environments during exercise leave them exhausted and experiencing intolerable levels of fatigue.  With this in mind, this study (albeit small) provides some further scientific evidence to correspond with the lived experience of people with MS.

The study also showed that using the stepper machine, as opposed to the body weight supported treadmill, resulted in better outcomes for people with multiple sclerosis.  In particular, the results indicated that the muscle fatigue experienced by the people in the study was less when they performed this specific type of exercise.  The authors suggested that this was likely due to the fact that the ‘work’ being done was spread out across more of the body, rather than being focussed on a certain area.  It will be interesting to see whether this remains true across a larger study size and whether members of our community have had similar experiences.

This research helps to provide some more information about things that need to be considered when constructing a physical fitness program for people living with multiple sclerosis.  Having a place to exercise that has air conditioning to keep the temperature cool, in conjunction with determining a style of exercise that works for each individual, appears to be critical in making sure that the maximum benefits are achieved, and a management plan involving physical activity can be sustained.

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