Lifelong Exercise Doesn’t Lower the Risk of Multiple Sclerosis, Large Study in Women Reports

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In a large prospective study validated measures of physical activity, the researchers found no evidence that exercise reduces the risk of developing multiple sclerosis (MS) of a woman. Although physical activity is known to have numerous health benefits, it seems unlikely to protect a person against the likelihood of developing MS, the study concludes.

The study, published in the journal neurology entitled “Physical activity and the incidence of multiple sclerosis.”

“We wanted to find out whether exercise reduces the risk of developing MS in women,” Kassandra Munger, ScD, with T. H. Chan Harvard School of Public Health Boston, in a press release. “Our study did not provide evidence to support it.”

Clinical research has reported that among MS patients with mild or moderate disability, exercise improves muscle strength and aerobic capacity, and decreased mobility problems and fatigue. Some studies have shown that exercise or physical activity may even slow progression of MS, although the evidence is inconsistent. The exercise could potentially modify the activity of MS through multiple mechanisms, including modulation of immune factors and stress hormones, and mediate the expression of neuronal growth factors.

to examine the association between the incidence of MS and physical activity in early life and adulthood, the researchers collected data from more than 193,000 women who participated in the Study of Nurses’ Health (NHS, a total of 81,723 women between 1986 to 2004) and nurses’ Health Study II (NHS II, 111.804 women, 1989-2009). These women were followed for up to 20 years. Each was asked to complete questionnaires on physical activity levels, and the levels of previous exercise in adolescence and childhood.

During those years, 341 women in the study groups developed MS.

Using the information provided, the research team calculated the total metabolic equivalent hours of physical activity per week performed by each individual, and what took place the types of exercise. The analysis was adjusted for ethnicity, age, place of residence at the age of 15 years, smoking, body mass index (BMI) at the age of 18, and intake of vitamin D supplement.

The results showed that in NHS and NHS II, more strenuous activity at ages 18-22 weakly associated with a decreased rate of MS. In NHS II, however, the total activity of early life (ages 12-22) had no association with MS, leading researchers to conclude that the evidence does not support the exercise as being related to a lower risk of occurrence MS.

“Overall, no consistent exercise at any age and MS association,” Munger said. “Exercise has proven to be beneficial for people with the disease, but it seems unlikely that exercise protects against the risk of developing MS.”

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