Resistance Training May Slow Multiple Sclerosis Progression

Physical training further minimizes brain shrinkage in MS patients already receiving medication.

Resistance training may delay disease progression in patients with multiple sclerosis (MS), a new study suggests.

Although prior advice warned patients with MS against exercising due to fears of exacerbating the disease, research now shows physical training can relieve many of the symptoms associated with MS, such as excessive fatigue and mobility impairments.

In a study published in the Multiple Sclerosis Journal, investigators sought to determine whether resistance training could protect the nervous system, ultimately slowing disease progression.

“Over the past 6 years, we have been pursuing the idea that physical training has effects on more than just the symptoms, and this study provides the first indications that physical exercise may protect the nervous system against the disease,” said investigator Ulrik Dalgas. “For the past 15 years, we have known that physical exercise does not harm people with multiple sclerosis, but instead often has a positive impact on, for example, their ability to walk, their levels of fatigue, their muscle strength, and their aerobic capacity, which has otherwise often deteriorated.

“But the fact that physical training also seems to have a protective effect on the brain in people with multiple sclerosis is new and important knowledge.”

The investigators followed 35 patients with MS for 6 months. The participants were divided into 2 groups: half engaged in resistance training twice per week and the other half continued to live their normal lives without systematic training.

MRIs were taken of all the patients’ brains prior to and following the 6-month period. The scans revealed the brain tended to shrink less in patients who participated in resistance training.

“Among persons with multiple sclerosis, the brain shrinks markedly faster than normal,” Dalgas said. “Drugs can counter this development, but we saw a tendency that training further minimizes brain shrinkage in patients already receiving medication. In addition, we saw that several brain areas actually started to grow in response to training.”

Although the reasoning behind this positive effect remains unclear, a bigger and more in-depth, ongoing study can help clarify and potentially lead to improved treatment options, Dalgas noted.

Dalgas stressed that the aim is not to replace medication with physical training, but rather serve as a supplement during treatment.

“Phasing out drugs in favor of training is not realistic,” Dalgas said. “On the other hand, the study indicates that systematic physical training can be a far more important supplement during treatment than has so far been assumed. This aspect needs to be thoroughly explored.”