Living with multiple sclerosis (MS) is no easy endeavor. There is no cure for the disease and current treatment options focus on slowing progression, managing symptoms, or speeding up recovery from MS relapses, or exacerbations. As a result, many physicians have been interested in holistic approaches to managing MS, including physical activity. A recent study published in the American Academy of Neurology’s medical journal, Neurology, has found that regular exercise can reduce disease activity in children with MS.

"These findings add to the possibility that physical activity may have a beneficial effect on the health of the brain," said Dr. E. Ann Yeh, from The Hospital for Sick Children (SickKids) in Toronto, in a statement.

According to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, MS is a disease that causes our immune system to attack the protective sheath around our nerves, resulting in damage to our central nervous system (CNS). The effect MS has on the patient’s CNS results in disruptions in the flow of information within the brain as well as between the brain and the body. Unfortunately, the cause of MS is still relatively unknown.

For the study, Yeh and her colleagues recruited 31 children with MS and 79 who experienced a single inflammatory neurological event. Each participant was asked to fill out a questionnaire that gauged tiredness, depression, and how often they exercised. Researchers picked 60 participants to undergo MRI brain scans that were used to measure brain volume and the amount of lesions in their brains, known as T2 lesions, which are an indicator of disease activity.

Eighty-two percent of children without MS reported participating in strenuous physical activity, while only 45 percent of children with MS reported doing so. For these children, however, exercise resulted in a drop in overall volume and size of T2 lesions. Children who participated in strenuous physical activity also suffered half the number of MS relapses as children who did not exercise. These findings held up when researchers adjusted for the severity of each child’s disease, too.

"Up to three-quarters of children with MS experience depression, tiredness, or memory and thinking impairment," Yeh said. "Our research is important since little is known regarding how lifestyle behaviors may affect the disease."

Alongside exercise, a number of recent studies have focused on treating MS with specific dietary guidelines. For example, research presented at the American Academy of Neurology's 67th Annual Meeting in Washington, D.C. found that regular coffee consumption can lower a person’s risk for developing MS. Another study conducted by the Raúl Carrea Institute for Neurological Research in Buenos Aires showed that a diet high in salt can provoke an immune response and worsen symptoms.

Dr. Terry Wahls, assistant chief of staff at the Iowa Veterans Affairs Medical Center, watched her quality of life decline significantly following her MS diagnosis in 2000. She decided to take her treatment into her own hands by adopting an MS-specific diet consisting of 3 cups of leafy greens, 3 cups of sulfur-rich vegetables, 3 cups of colorful fruits and vegetables, omega-3 fatty acids, grass-fed meat and organ meats, and seaweed. The result: Wahls turned in her tilt-recline wheelchair for a bicycle that helped her compete in an 18-mile tour, all in a year’s time.

Source: Banwell B, Motl R, Yeh E, et al. Lower physical activity is associated with higher disease burden in pediatric multiple sclerosis. Neurology . 2015.