Physical activity and MND – is there a link?

The results of new research investigating a link between physical activity and MND was presented by the University of Sheffield research group in the late-breaking news session on the last day of the 24th International Symposium on ALS/MND. Under the leadership of Prof Pam Shaw, along with Dr Chris McDermott, MND Association-funded researcher Dr Ceryl Harwood presented her findings.

Dr Brian Dickie, director of research development

Dr Brian Dickie, Director of Research Development

The background of MND and physical activity

Physical activity and the link between MND has long been debated amongst researchers.

There are a number of different types of physical activity; from leisure time (for example an evening walk) to more vigorous physical activity and athleticism (marathon runners and professional sportsmen).

Previous research back in 2008 found that Italians playing professional football had an increased risk of developing MND. However, this research is yet to be confirmed in other countries. Director of Research, Dr Brian Dickie said: “The Italian researchers also looked at professional cyclists and basketball players, but no association was found, so basically the jury has been out on whether athleticism is a risk factor for MND.”

The project

In collaboration with the Medical Research Council (MRC) Epidemiology Unit at Cambridge University Dr Harwood’s project, unlike the previous Italian study, is addressing the question of whether physical activity in adult life in general is a risk factor for MND, extending beyond the focus on professional sportsmen.

Physical activity alone, however, does not cause MND. We already know that MND is an incredibly complex disease, with many factors ‘tipping the balance’ as to whether someone develops it or not. One of these factors alone is therefore not enough to cause MND.

It is likely that physical activity may contribute to a complex interplay between biological and genetic processes, which already predispose an individual to develop MND therefore ‘tipping the balance’

Asking the questions

Gathering the evidence for past physical activity is no easy matter, but Dr Harwood has developed and validated a novel (new) questionnaire to measure physical history in adulthood, using data from a diabetes study in the 1990s where over 1,000 people had detailed measures taken of their actual energy expenditure.

The breaking news!

Dr Ceryl Harwood, MRC/MND Association Lady Edith Wolfson Clinical Research Fellow

Dr Ceryl Harwood, MRC/MND Association Lady Edith Wolfson Clinical Research Fellow

Dr Harwood made careful measurements of the levels and types of physical activity during adult life in 175 people with MND and 317 control subjects who were matched for age, gender and place of residence.  Both during the whole of adult life and in the most recent 15 years, the MND patients had significantly higher levels of total physical activity, vigorous (“working up a sweat”) physical activity and leisure related physical activity compared to the matched control subjects.

This means that this type of physical activity may be a risk factor for MND in these individuals, however further research in other countries is needed to confirm these findings.

This research adds evidence to support the link between MND and leisure time physical activity, however a questionnaire looking at past physical activity will not be 100% accurate. This is because recollections of past physical activity may be limited, hence why further research is needed to support these findings.

Dr Harwood highlighted that she aims to investigate this potential link further by examining gene-environment interactions, identifying susceptibility genes in these individuals. Due to Sheffield’s genetic expertise, Dr Harwood is perfectly placed to delve into the genetic factors that underpin the selective vulnerability of motor neurones.

What this means for people living with MND

Prof Pam Shaw (Sheffield Institute of Translational Neuroscience, University of Sheffield)

Prof Pam Shaw (Sheffield Institute of Translational Neuroscience, University of Sheffield)

Prof Pam Shaw commented on their research: “Many neurologists have long suspected that MND tends to happen to people who fire their motor neurons more than the average person, with high levels of physical activity.

“Clearly most people who are athletic or physically active do not develop damage to the motor system. So we believe that “gene-environment” interaction is at play and that physical activity is only a risk factor in the presence of a certain genetic profile which in turn controls the chemistry within the nervous system.

“The University of Sheffield team are very excited about the results of this study as it has identified, using robust methodology, what appears to be a definite environmental risk factor for the non-inherited form of MND (90-95% of total MND cases).  The next steps will be to try to determine the genetic variations, which make some people more susceptible to motor system damage when the lifestyle factor of vigorous physical activity is present.  This may eventually allow a preventative approach for MND.”

What other MND researchers are saying

Dr Martin Turner based at the University of Oxford will be holding a meeting in March 2014 looking at athleticism and cardiovascular fitness in MND. Commenting on Dr Harwood’s research in advance of the meeting he said:

Dr Martin Turner

Dr Martin Turner, MRC/MND Association Lady Edith Wolfson Clinical Research Fellow

“I am particularly looking forward to hearing the Sheffield group’s data on physical activity in MND in the late breaking session. Many MND clinicians notice that their patients tend to be very physically active, generally ‘fitter’ people, before their illness.

“Studies have shown MND patients are typically slimmer than the general population and possibly cardiovascularly fitter, with a different metabolism perhaps. A simple cause-and-effect model between exercise and MND seems too simplistic.

“To try and unravel all of this I am putting together the 1st ‘ACE’ workshop in Oxford next year to bring international experts together to discuss ‘Athleticism, Cardiovascular fitness and Energy metabolism’ in MND. I hope it will help us understand what we are seeing in our patients, with a view to finding ways to identify those at highest risk of MND, as well as novel pathways to the disease and so improved treatment strategies.”

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22 thoughts on “Physical activity and MND – is there a link?

  1. My sister who died from Mnd in Sept had a very healthy life. She was keen to stay fit, jogging and swimming as well as some cycling at least 4 times a week. Very interesting theory and hope its the start of further research.

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    • Thank you for your time & efforts looking into MND. My sister died from MND January this year. She was very slim & extremely fit. She operated her own hairdressing salon until age 65 walking to & from work daily plus walking late afternoons. She did lots of heavy gardening & rarely sat still. Despite the MND she pushed herself to walk until her legs wouldn’t hold her anymore. I have wondered for a long time whether over exercising may have contributed to her illness. She was super healthy prior to MND & it was devastating to watch her fade away. She never gave in & was non complaining & fought to the end. A shocking ending to such a beautiful life. Good luck with your research. This frightful disease robs people of everything.
      Many sincere thanks & good luck.

  3. I find research for mnd very interesting but I cannot relate to your findings I lost my mother 23yrs ago aged 67 and my sister this year aged 49 I hope and pray that soon there will be a test that can be used to diagnose instead of eliminating process my sister did donate her body to research and I hope people with mnd would also consider this .

  4. My husband died in December 2014 after a 17 month battle with MND. He was 67 when he died. During his life he did not undertake strenuous exercise on a regular basis although he started playing golf in his sixties – and even then he didn’t play a round every week. However he worked as a coppersmith until the age of 26 and I wonder if this work contributed to his developing MND?

    • Thank you for your comment.

      A few research studies have found a possible association between being exposed to copper and going on to develop MND. However, these studies are not based on information gathered from lots of people, so more research needs to be carried out in this area. With regards to your late husband it is hard to say if his work as a coppersmith may have contributed to him developing MND. The amount and length of time he was exposed to copper would be a factor in working out if it did have an effect.

      As the blog says, MND is a complex disease thought to be caused by a range of things including lifestyle, environmental and subtle genetic factors. It could be a possibility that exposure to a particular metal, in this case copper, may have led to him developing MND, but there are likely to be a combination of several factors that contributed towards his illness.

      If you have any more questions on this topic then please email research@mndassociation.org.

      Kind regards,
      Sara Bolton
      Research Team, MND Association

  5. A week before I was diagnosed with Mnd I had an mot at my local gym. I was told I had the fitness of a 25 yr old. I am 65. I had been extremely active and weight training. I personally contribute my Mnd to artificiAl sweeteners. I think many people who are fitness addicts watch their diet and have follows low fat diets full of artificial sweeteners. I definitely believe they have contributed to my condition.
    Has there been any research done on exercise plus artificial sweeteners.
    Kind regards
    Lesley johns

    • Thank you for your comment Lesley.

      With regards to physical exercise as a possible cause of MND, then the research that has been done is often conflicting in the evidence it finds. Some studies find a small link between rigorous exercise and developing MND. Other studies do not find a link. More research into this area is still needed before we can come to a definite conclusion about whether certain levels of physical exercise contribute to the development of MND.

      I’ve had a look through the published research and cannot find any studies into artificial sweeteners and if they can cause MND. I am aware that there has been some discussion over a possible link between the two, but at the moment there is no scientific evidence linking them.

      The compounds found in some artificial sweeteners (such as aspartame/aspartic acid) occur naturally in the body. Aspartame is responsible for passing messages from one nerve cell to another. At higher than normal levels these compounds could possibly put the cells in your body under stress, which may lead to cell damage. We still do not know enough about the process of exactly how and why motor neurons begin to die to tell if excess aspartame could have an effect.

      We think it is likely that MND is caused by a whole mixture of genetic, lifestyle and environmental factors. It is likely that the specific factors that contribute to MND vary from person to person. So even if evidence linking artificial sweeteners to MND is found, it would be unlikely this would be the single cause of someone going on to develop MND.

      Kind regards,
      Sara Bolton, MND Association UK

  6. My father got diagnosed with MND, 18 months back….. He used to do excessive physical work during his adult life…. When he was 45, he continued with the same lifestyle of excessive physical work…. Has it contributed towards MND in him…..

    • Dear Anil,
      Thank you for your comment.
      It is hard to say what may have contributed towards your father developing MND. Researchers do not fully know what may contribute to MND developing, though we think it is a combination of several genetic and environmental/lifestyle factors. When enough of these factors ‘accumulate’ then this tips the balance towards MND developing – at the moment the number of factors could be as many as 5 or 6 different things. This combination of factors is different for every person. Physical activity might be one of the contributory factors, but much more research into this topic is required before any definite conclusions can be drawn.
      If you have any further questions please email research@mndassociation.org
      Kind regards,
      Sara Bolton
      MND Association, UK

      • God be with him and u my wife past away almost 4 years ago after 18months ago I won’t tell you how hard it is to cope with it

  7. My sister was diagnosed at 38 and nearly 3 years later fighting hard. She was not an overly active person through exercise but is slim with a high metabolism. I have often wondered if any research has been done into amalgam fillings in teeth as they can leech into our bodies? Please keep up this valuable research. We must find a cure for this hideous disease.

    • Dear Jean,
      Thank you for your comment. There have been a few studies looking into whether dental (mercury) fillings are linked to an increased risk of developing neurological diseases. Most came to the same conclusion that people with mercury fillings are no more susceptible to neurological disease than those who have no fillings. This suggests the metals did not leech into the body. Several studies have looked more widely at link between metals exposure and MND, and again none have found a conclusive link between them.
      Kind regards
      Sara Bolton
      MND Association

  8. I was formally diagnosed with MND in May 2014. Having read these posts I look back and two years before I had pain in my left hip. I had found a little difficulty doing things like dancing. My wife a guide in a Tudor Manor House and got me into Tudor Dancing back in 2011 and some steps I found difficult. I am 67 now and previously kept myself fit. I played rugby until I was 40. I had been a boxer in my teens and played water polo and squash. I always kept myself fit walking the dog every day and swimming at least twice a week. I had assumed the hip pain was too long in the front row. Or to long walking the beat.
    The information is excellent on this site.

  9. I think there probably is alink between to much physical exercise and mnd. I was diagnosed with mnd in December 2015 i was a postman I would ride my bike most days to work 5 miles each way then walk around for 4 to 5 hours a day up hills etc delivering mail then do a collection afterwards . I would push myself each day and even though I was 54 I was one of the fastest at my office .
    I have always been a bit hyper even now I cant keep still and get bored quickly and have to keep moving.

  10. Found this enlightening. I started falling in the street 2 years ago always landing on the right leg which I now drag slightly. Doctor couldn’t see me for 6 weeks so didn’t bother again. Now I wonder if this was a precurser to MND. My mother’s 2 sisters died from MND some 20 years ago in their 70’s, which is where I am now, so always imagine that I could have the family ‘curse’. My mother died from bladder cancer aged 79. All the females and one male in mum’s family had hip replacements (so far I’ve missed it) but I have a fitness fanatic 51 year old daughter. Thank you for this splendid info site.

  11. My Dad died of mnd aged 79 five years ago. He was very fit always walking many miles playing golf, and generally pushing himself to stay slim and fit well into his 70s.
    I now have mnd ALS in my 50s and I definitely think that I have an inherited mnd gene, but also I was very very active. I had a job as a gardener, I back packed carrying heavy packs and I was never still. I am convinced that my high levels of activity contributed to my mnd.
    A very difficult disease to get to grips with.

    • Dear Debbie,

      I am sorry to hear about your diagnosis.
      As you might know, there is no definitive cause of MND and its development is likely to be due to a combination of genetic, environmental and lifestyle factors. While the type of your MND is likely to be inherited/familial, which means that an MND-associated gene is passed down from your parent, other factors may have influenced its development. We are still learning about inherited MND and lots of research is underway to understand more about the interplay between genes and environment. It can therefore be possible that increased physical activity increased your chances of the MND gene to be ‘activated’ but it is not likely that it would be the sole cause of you developing the disease.

      If you wish to find more information on inherited MND, please have a look at our website with links to relevant information sheets.

      Regards,

      Martina

  12. Hi my dad died after fighting mnd for 2 years. He hardly ever fell ill and was always active. Walking cycling and gardening all his life. He also had a very stressful job for 25 odd years. He made the decision to leave his brain and spinal cord for research

    • Dear Duncan,

      Thank you for your comment.

      I am sorry to hear about your dad’s death.
      We are very grateful that he had made the decision to donate his brain and spinal cord for research purposes. Such contributions are very important to find the causes and, ultimately, treatments of MND.

  13. Pingback: What we know, don’t know and suspect about what causes motor neuron disease

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