Strenuous exercise and the onset of Motor Neurone Disease

BBC News recently reported a study that found a link between frequent strenuous exercise and Motor Neurone Disease (MND). Since then we have had many questions about this and whether there is cause to be worried so I have explored the study in more detail and tried to find some answers.

The science of Motor Neurone Disease (MND):

Motor Neurone Disease (MND), also known as Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), is a degenerative condition where the individual’s immune system attacks the sheath protecting the nerves, rapidly causing a decline in function until ultimately the individual succumbs to the condition.

As yet there is no known cure for the disease, but there are treatments to reduce the impact.

The study:

The study, published in May 2021, was conducted by researchers from the University of Sheffield, Stanford University, and the University of Arizona, and used widely available BioBank data to analyse trends between those who develop MND and exercise patterns.

The participants wore an accelerometer to measure physical activity patterns and completed a questionnaire on their exercise habits. In addition, each participant’s genomic (DNA) data was analysed. A further study within the investigation specifically controlled a small cohort of participants with and without MND to look specifically at the differing response of each group to exercise.

The results:

The researchers found that there was a link between the volume and frequency of strenuous exercise and development of MND but no link between the amount of general physical activity and the disease.

A further study in the control trial revealed more details about the link between strenuous exercise and MND, finding that the disease was much more likely to develop in individuals with a specific genotype. This is key discovery could provide the foundation for assessing individual risk and establishing causation of disease development.

The important take-aways:

Overall, the study does point to a link between frequent strenuous exercise and the development of MND in those who are seen as genetically pre-disposed.

More research is needed to quantify this risk and perhaps create suitable risk testing, particularly in the sporting arena where several high-profile sportspeople have been diagnosed with MND in recent years.

But for the vast majority of people the benefits of exercise, both low and high intensity, far outweigh the risks highlighted in this study, which are more relevant to professional athletes who vigorously exercise for many hours every day.

The study’s authors are clear that the findings are not a call to stop strenuous exercise, so you can look forward as usual to your next exercise session.

Words of wisdom:

“Anything worth doing, is worth overdoing” – Mick Jagger