What were the results?
Six months after the exercise programme, we carried out a final assessment and interviewed the participants. They reported increased levels of fitness — but the biggest impact was on their quality of life. The exercise programme had given them the confidence to try more things, bringing with it more freedom.
One participant told us, “I'm less fatigued. I don't have as many floppy days. I find simple things like turning over in bed or picking things up off the floor are a lot easier.”
The benefits were also felt by family members, with people with MS more able to participate in activities. One told me, “I try harder. My little boy will be surprised when I say, ‘Yeah, alright, I'll go swimming’ or, ‘Yeah, OK, let's go for a walk.”
Training the trainers
When we spoke to the participants of the programme, they also told us they had really enjoyed working with professionals who truly understood their condition.
Previously people had gone to the gym and worked with personal trainers who didn’t have any knowledge of MS, and often pushed them too hard as a result. This led people with MS to stop attending. We realised that if we were to maintain the improvements in people’s quality of life, exercise professionals needed better training.
We produced evidence of this knowledge gap, enabling one of the UK’s leading leisure training providers, the Wright Foundation, to develop a neurological course for exercise professionals. It’s the first nationwide course that’s affordable for personal trainers.
As a result of our study, the national guidelines on MS have also been changed. NICE, who advise NHS practitioners, cited our study when changing their advice to encourage exercise as a way of managing the symptoms of MS. Sheffield Teaching Hospitals also incorporated our research into their internal guidelines.
It’s important to me that my research is used to benefit as many people as possible, and these changes will have a huge impact on people with MS throughout the community.
A brighter future for people with MS
Twenty years ago, when people were diagnosed with MS they were told by doctors to stop all exercise. As a result of this advice many people have lost mobility over the years which could have been saved by taking part in appropriate exercise.
Thanks to our research, people diagnosed today will receive much better advice — and have greater access to people who are fully trained in their condition — leading to an increased quality of life and better management of their symptoms.
Before I started working in this area, my background was in performance-testing elite athletes — trying to shave off fractions of a second, or helping them jump that little bit higher. But the work I do now with people with MS is much more rewarding.
The little changes we can encourage make a huge difference to people’s quality of life. I’m continuing to work with the MS Society on further research and training, so that even more people can benefit from our work in the future.