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How we’re using exercise to improve the lives of people with MS

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14 October 2021

How we’re using exercise to improve the lives of people with MS

Principal Researcher and Lead Physical Activity, Wellbeing and Public Health Research Group

14 October 2021 • Viewing time: 1 minute

Our researchers are rewriting the rulebook on how to treat the symptoms of multiple sclerosis — and, in the process, improving the quality of life for thousands of people.

An estimated 130,000 people in the UK have multiple sclerosis (MS). The disease affects the central nervous system, causing pain, fatigue and in many cases limiting mobility. With no cure, lifestyle changes can play an important part in managing the condition.

Previously, medical professionals had discouraged people with MS from taking exercise, believing it would exacerbate their symptoms. But our study at Sheffield Hallam has shown that exercise has significant benefits for people with MS, leading to better fitness and an improved quality of life.

As a result of our research, exercise professionals have been trained to work better with people with MS, and many people with MS have experienced an increased quality of life — both for them and for their families. Our work has also played a significant role in changing NHS guidelines on treating MS patients.

A world-first trial

My colleagues and I set up the world’s first large-scale trial looking at MS and exercise. We recruited 120 people with MS from Sheffield. Half were kept on their current care routine, and the other 60 participated in a 12-week exercise programme.

Those on the programme attended personalised exercise and physio sessions, using equipment including treadmills, rowing machines and exercise bikes. Everything was designed with the participant and a physiotherapist to take account of what each person could do and what they were comfortable with.

We also used tools such as action-planning to help the participants create an individual exercise programme they could continue long-term after the programme. They were encouraged to set goals based on what they like doing — some went for walks, some swam, and some even started going to the gym.

Woman using exercise bike
Participants completed personalised exercise sessions based on what they were comfortable with.

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.


Staff

Anouska Carter 123196

Anouska Carter

Principal Researcher and Lead Physical Activity, Wellbeing and Public Health Research Group

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Liam Humphreys

Liam Humphreys

Research Fellow

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Nicky Snowdon 123194

Nicky Snowdon

Senior Lecturer in Physiotherapy

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About this project

Explore the people and organisations behind this research, and find related publications by the research team.

Related courses

Our teaching is informed by research. Browse undergraduate and postgraduate courses with links to this research project, topic or team.

Get in touch

Find key contacts for enquiries about funding, partnerships, collaborations and doctoral degrees.

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