Skip to main content
Women exercising with therabands in a class

What’s the evidence for physical activity with MS?

Physical activity which encompasses any bodily movement that expends energy and is associated with how we move, exercise, work, engage in leisure and daily life activities has a broad evidence base in improving outcomes for all people at any life stage and whatever their state of health (Posadzki 2002; Janssen 2010; Warburton 2006).

For people with MS specifically, evidence shows that the benefits span physical, psychosocial and cognitive health, and have been highlighted as a meaningful way of managing fatigue, one of the most common and debilitating symptoms of MS (Amatya et al 2019; NICE 2022; Oliva Ramirez 2021).

People exercising in a class together

Improved symptoms and quality of life in MS

Several MS-specific meta-analyses in recent years have found that physical activity can be incredibly effective in maintaining or improving function, movement and overall wellbeing for people with MS, and individual studies continue to bear this out. This includes improved walking and balance (Motl 2017), muscle strength (Sa 2014) and increased mobility (Snook and Motl 2009) to improved quality of life (Sa,2014; Anthony and Gidugu 2012) and self-esteem (Anthony and Gidugu 2012).

Regular participation in physical activity is highly effective in reducing fatigue (Razazian 2020), depression (Kyriakatis, Besios et al. 2022) and elevating mood more generally (Triantafillou 2019), which in turn can positively impact perceived levels of pain (Amtmann 2015).

It also contributes to symptom management indirectly through improving sleep quality from the first day of activity (hopkinsmedicine.org) – which in turn has a significant impact on how people experience their MS (Peel 2023) – and through increasing slow wave sleep responsible for healing (Park 2021).

Supporting people with MS

Physical activity can include a range of activities, making it far more accessible to people, and can be mood-lifting such as dancing or gardening, or more communal, supporting social connection. To both encourage someone to begin any form of activity, and to feel they wish to continue it in the long term, it must be accessible, enjoyable, engaging and meaningful (Stennett et al 2018) for them.

It is important to consider supportive medications alongside lifestyle change. For example, whilst physical activity has been found more effective than three of the main drugs used to reduce fatigue (Torres-Costoso 2022; Nourbakhsh 2018), someone experiencing fatigue may need supportive pharmacological intervention to allow them to start engaging in physical activity.

Woman stretching at home

Supporting people with MS

Physical activity can include a range of activities, making it far more accessible to people, and can be mood-lifting such as dancing or gardening, or more communal, supporting social connection. To both encourage someone to begin any form of activity, and to feel they wish to continue it in the long term, it must be accessible, enjoyable, engaging and meaningful (Stennett et al 2018) for them.

It is important to consider supportive medications alongside lifestyle change. For example, whilst physical activity has been found more effective than three of the main drugs used to reduce fatigue (Torres-Costoso 2022; Nourbakhsh 2018), someone experiencing fatigue may need supportive pharmacological intervention to allow them to start engaging in physical activity.

Key tips for supporting people with MS

  1. Physical activity can be done safely by anyone with MS. The key is to find the right activity for that individual and start slowly. Over time, the type of activity and time spent on it can increase until eventually it becomes part of a regular routine – as regular activity brings the most benefit.
     
  2. There is plenty of support available to help people to engage in physical activities, from videos on our website to programmes run within the MS Therapy Centres or local wellness initiatives – your GP surgeries, rehabilitation teams or physio departments might be able to signpost you so you can signpost your patients.
     
  3. If people with MS require formal support, they can be referred to community physiotherapists or fitness instructors who specialise in working with people with MS. What is available will depend on your local area – perhaps start by asking your MS, physiotherapy or rehabilitation team.

We have a lot of advice and information aimed at people living with MS available that you could signpost to, here.