1. LACK OF CERTAINTY. No one knows for sure what causes multiple sclerosis (MS), a chronic disease that affects the brain, spinal cord, and optic nerves. What is known for certain is that the immune system of people with MS erodes the myelin sheath that covers and protects certain nerves, which interferes with communication between the brain and specific parts of the body. Unfortunately, no single test for diagnosing MS exists.
2. A TALE OF NUMBERS. Estimates indicate that more than 400,000 individuals in the U.S. and 2.5 million people worldwide have MS. In fact, the average person in the U.S. has a 1:750 chance of developing MS, a level of risk that is exacerbated to as high as 1:20 for a child or an individual who has MS. Furthermore, women are 2 to 3 times more likely to develop MS than men.
3. CONSPICUOUS SIGNS. The most common initial symptoms of MS tend to vary from person to person and include numbness, tingling, difficulties with balance, weakness in one or more limbs, and blurred vision. Typically, the symptoms of MS tend to appear in individuals aged between 20 and 40 years, although about 10,000 children in the U.S. have been diagnosed with the disease. Whereas children with MS tend to have symptoms similar to those of adults, some children with MS also experience seizures and lethargy.
4. STRATEGY FOR SUCCESS. Currently, treatment strategies for MS focus on altering the course of the disease, treating or preventing flare-ups, managing symptoms, improving physiological function, and providing emotional support. Among the possible treatment options for MS are medications, physical therapy, support groups, plasma exchange, bowel retraining, and positive lifestyle changes, including exercising on a regular basis.
5. A PLETHORA OF BENEFITS. Exercising regularly not only enhances the quality of life of individuals with MS but also may help mitigate their MS symptoms and decrease the risk of experiencing certain MS-related complications in the future. People with MS should consult with their physician or trained health/fitness professional to determine appropriate ways for them to be physically active.
6. MUSCLES MATTER. Research has shown that individuals with MS are at particular risk for osteoporosis, a bone-thinning disease, because of several possible factors, including lower levels of vitamin D and a number of mobility-related issues. In this regard, engaging in weight-bearing exercises (e.g., strength training, jogging, mechanical stair climbing, aerobic dancing, etc.) can help people with MS build and maintain their bone density, which, in turn, will help protect their bones and actually lower their risk of contracting osteoporosis.
7. WAIST MANAGEMENT. Individuals with MS often gain weight because of the heightened likelihood of a higher level of inactivity and the side effects of some common MS medications (e.g., steroid drugs used to treat disease-related flare-ups). In turn, such weight gain can intensify a person’s MS symptoms. Exercise and a sound diet can help individuals achieve and maintain a healthy weight. Many experts believe that a low-fat diet (=30% of total calories in fat), featuring a regular consumption of fish, fruit, and vegetables, 25 to 30 g of fiber daily, and plenty of fluids, can help people with MS feel better, have more energy, and be healthier.
8. BRAIN FUNCTION. Exercise has been shown to enhance cognitive functioning in individuals with MS. In fact, one major study found that people with MS who were more fit had less damage in the parts of their brain that experience deterioration as a result of MS than did less fit individuals with MS. The more fit subjects in the investigation also had a greater volume of vital gray matter, a finding that is important because of the link between gray matter and brain-processing skills.
9. THE BURDEN OF STRESS. Coping with MS can lead to undue levels of stress in the lives of individuals with MS, and their families. Living with MS can expose people to a roller coaster of emotions. In that regard, yoga, tai chi, meditation, deep breathing, simplifying life, and working with support groups can have a positive impact on the mental well-being of a person with MS.
10. PERPLEXING PUZZLE. At this time, no known cure for MS exists. Given that one person is diagnosed as having MS every hour of every day, individuals with MS face somewhat of an unclear future. Fortunately, extensive research activities to better understand the underlying mechanisms of the disease, as well as to discover new treatments for people with MS, are well underway.
James A. Peterson, Ph.D., FACSM, is a freelance writer and consultant in sports medicine. From 1990 until 1995, Dr. Peterson was director of sports medicine with StairMaster. Until that time, he was professor of physical education at the United States Military Academy.
Copyright 2010 by the American College of Sports Medicine.