Exercise can benefit people with multiple sclerosis.

Exercise can benefit people with multiple sclerosis.

Exercise helps reduce some of the symptoms of multiple sclerosis, and it helps those with the disease have a better quality of life because they feel more confident in their ability to move, says a research scientist at the University of Illinois.

Rob Motl, a professor of kinesiology and community health, is now looking at whether exercise affects more than the symptoms of multiple sclerosis. Does it modify the disease itself? If so, exercise could be a new treatment option for people with multiple sclerosis, Motl said.

“Loss of mobility is the defining feature of the disease,” he said. “It really robs them of their capacity for independent living over time.

“We’ve done studies that suggest quality of life is better because exercise and being physically active gives them a sense of control over their ability to be physically active and manage their life in the context of the disease,” Motl continued. “It’s helping them feel more in charge of their lives.”

His research also showed being active helped reduce the amount of fatigue and pain that people with multiple sclerosis were feeling.

Doctors look at physical impairment and whether it is getting worse as a sign of whether the disease is progressing, Motl said. He has found that exercise has a comparable effect on mobility as does medication used to slow the progression of multiple sclerosis, but for different reasons.

Drugs affect the immune system and keep it from reacting in a way that drives the disease, he said. Exercise enhances physiological functions [--] strength, balance, aerobic fitness [--] that influence mobility.

“There might be the possibility that drugs and exercise combined could work better together,” Motl said.

He said some research suggests aerobic exercise is related to better brain structure and function, by promoting more intact brain cells and myelin connections. It’s evidence that exercise is affecting the disease itself, not just the symptoms, he said.

Motl and his research team are also looking at how to promote exercise to people with multiple sclerosis [--] “not just can they come into my lab, but how can we get them active where they live?”

“My lab has taken the approach that physical activity is good for folks with MS, but it might not just be good, it might be great,” Motl said. “If that’s true, we need to better understand how to promote the behavior so we can help more people with MS become active.”

They’ve developed a Web-based program to motivate behavior change and teach ways to enhance physical activity. In a just-completed pilot study, participants reported they greatly increased their physical activity when they used the program. Motl has applied for a National Institutes of Health grant to do a similar study with a larger sample of people.

The program gives information about the benefits of being more physically active. It suggests people make small increases in physical activity [--] walking for five extra minutes, for example. The idea is, the additional activity will motivate them to continue and to do more.

The program has participants use a pedometer to monitor their daily activity, to see what they are doing and how much they are increasing their activity. It also gives tips for setting realistic goals, and for maintaining an exercise routine over time and overcoming barriers.

Doctors need more information about exercise for patients with multiple sclerosis as well, Motl said. Historically, they discouraged exercise for those patients. While they now believe physical activity is good, they don’t necessarily know what kind of exercise to recommend or how much.

Motl would like to develop guidelines for neurologists to use when counseling patients about exercise.

When Motl began his research on exercise and multiple sclerosis seven years ago, there just a handful of studies on the subject. Not so anymore. He said the work in his UI lab has set the research agenda for those looking at multiple sclerosis.

Motl has five ongoing research studies on exercise and its effects on people with multiple sclerosis.
Anyone interested in participating in a study can contact him at robmotl[@]illinois.edu.

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