There is growing evidence for the benefits of exercise for people with multiple sclerosis. Studies have shown that the advantages gained from regular physical activity can include decreasing fatigue, improving mobility, reducing cognitive problems and helping in the management of depression.

As the amount of information in this area grows, it is good to see that a greater focus is being placed on having more research projects that investigate how and why exercise might help people with multiple sclerosis. As an example of this, researchers from the University of Hamburg presented results of from their multiple sclerosis exercise study at the recent ECTRIMS conference in Paris.

The study looked at whether an aerobic exercise program could help improve cognition in people with relapsing-remitting multiple sclerosis (RRMS). This was a relatively small trial – 30 people were in the exercise group, and they were compared to 27 people with RRMS who did not undertake the program. The exercise program involved 2-3 sessions a week across a 3 month period. Each person received an individual program designed by a fitness instructor, which was developed after assessing them before the start of the trial.

At the end of the 3 months, no differences in cognition were seen between the two groups. Whilst this may appear disappointing, it is important to remember a few factors. Firstly, the study only lasted for 3 months, so there is a possibility that training over a longer period of time might have shown greater cognitive benefits. Secondly, the researchers commented that many of the participants did not have large cognitive issues at the beginning of the trial. This seems a little strange from a trial design perspective, but it may reinforce that longer was needed for improvements to be observed. It would be interesting to perform a similar trial in people with RRMS that were experiencing more cognitive problems, as possibly a more noticeable effect would be seen.

However, the researchers noted that another result from their study is potentially of great interest. Using a new imaging technique, they were able to see that the group that undertook the exercise program had increased connectivity in their brain. This essentially means that there were higher levels of interaction between different regions of the brain in people having gone through the 3 month exercise program. It is too early to say how reliable this data is and what it might mean in the long-term. Longer-term studies across larger groups of people will be needed to prove both the results and the technique.  However, it does suggest that exercise may be having even more benefits than previously known, and that further research in this area is critical to helping improve many aspects of quality of life for people living with multiple sclerosis.

More detailed study results from this study can be found here.

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