When Paula Tatman enrolled in an exercise research program in June 2012, her greatest hope was that she would be able to walk down the aisle at her son’s wedding a year later. The Urbana woman had been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2004, and at the time she started the research study, she had great difficulty walking.
Tatman participated in a six-month exercise study at the Exercise Neuroscience Research Laboratory in the Department of Kinesiology and Community Health at the University of Illinois. The program is one of a number at the lab designed for people with multiple sclerosis.
“The research being done here is really changing the landscape of rehabilitation research for people with MS. Illinois has really become a leader,” said Rob Motl, a kinesiology professor who runs the lab. “We’re showing exercise seems to have very profound effects for people with MS.”
The effects include increasing mobility, improving quality of life, decreasing fatigue and depression, and decreasing the rate of relapses.
Participants in the study in which Tatman participated exercise under the supervision of researchers in the lab, and they work on aerobic fitness, strength training, resistance training or improving their balance. Researchers assess the participants’ fitness, walking ability and cognitive function, among other things, at the beginning and end of the programs to measure their progress. They also use imaging technology to look at whether exercise is making changes in the central nervous system and the brain.
The goal is not just for the participants to exercise during the program, but to change their behavior so exercise becomes part of their lives, said Yvonne Learmonth, a postdoctoral research fellow with the lab.
“It’s not simply about giving someone the instructions and the program. It’s about giving them guidance to incorporate exercise into their life,” she said.
Many of the lab’s studies are funded by the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, whose major fundraiser is the Walk MS events, held across the country in the spring and fall. This year’s local event is Sept. 7 at Meadowbrook Park in Urbana. Tatman has been on the planning committee for several years, and she is one of its top fundraisers with her team, Paula’s Pals. She said organizers hope to raise more than $30,000 this year.
The Exercise Neuroscience Research Lab will have a team at the walk this year as well. Motl said the family friendly event is a great way for the community to learn more about the disease, the people here who are affected by it and how they can help. The vast majority of the money raised by the walks goes to pay for research, Motl said, such as the studies being conducted in his lab.
Tatman said the lab’s exercise program improved her balance and helped her feel more stable, so she could walk with a cane rather than using a wheelchair. It lessened her fatigue as well. When her son was married in June 2013, Tatman walked down the aisle and also danced with her son at the reception.
“That kind of motivation trumps anything I could ever tell her about exercise,” Motl said.
The motivation for Carolyn Hurley of Normal is the improvement she’s seen in others who have participated in the exercise program. She learned about it from a woman in her yoga class, who was using a walker and would often fall.
“When I saw her when she was done (with the program), she was a whole new person. The walker was gone, the cane was gone,” Hurley said. “I said, ‘I want to do that too.’”
She started the program in July. Hurley didn’t get out much last winter and her whole body was stiff from lack of movement. Since she’s started the program, her mobility has improved and she has learned to relax and sleep better.
“I love it. It makes a huge difference,” she said.
Her husband Bruce said she is more confident and has fallen less than before she started the program.
Falls are a risk for people with multiple sclerosis, so improving strength and balance is important for their safety as well as their quality of life, Learmonth said.
In addition to the six-month exercise study, the lab is running a number of other programs that have included a home-based trial of a fall prevention program; a one-day program involving fire safety officials and engineers that looked at how the design of exit doors in a building might help or hinder a person with a disability in getting out; and a new study designed to find out what resources people with multiple sclerosis need to be more physically active and to share that information with neurologists and rehabilitation specialists.
“Every person I’ve talked to has been really excited to contribute to the research, and our research is hopefully bettering their lives in some way. So it’s a neat relationship,” said Julia Balto, the research coordinator for the lab.
The Walk MS event is at 1 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 7, at Meadowbrook Park in Urbana. There are 1.5- and 3-mile routes available.
For more information about the walk, go to http://walkild.nationalmssociety.org. Click on the tab for “Event Details” on the left and go to the Urbana link.
For more information about becoming involved with the research programs on exercise and multiple sclerosis at the Exercise Neuroscience Research Laboratory, call 217-244-1191 or email email@example.com. Find out more about the lab at www.enrl.net.
Photos: Top: A computer program tracks the steps of Paula Tatman as she walks at the Exercise Neuroscience Research Laboratory at the University of Illinois. Bottom: Tatman, who has multiple sclerosis, uses her favorite workout machine as she exercises with the aide of Yvonne Learmonth at the Exercise Neuroscience Research Laboratory. The NuStep machine works like an elliptical machine, only with a recumbent position for people with balance issues. Photos by Heather Coit/The News-Gazette.