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Less Physical Activity Linked to Signs of Worsening MS, Says New Study Funded by National MS Society

January 6, 2023

Lower levels of physical activity (as determined by step counting) were linked both to worsening physical function and to thinning of spinal cord and brain tissue in a small study of 50 people with MS. Further study may show that monitoring steps is a simple way to track nervous system status, and improvement or worsening of MS. Further research will also show whether increasing physical activity (by raising step counts) can improve physical function and protect people with MS from some loss of nerve tissues.
  • Background: In addition to being essential to general health and well-being, exercise and physical activity are helpful in managing many MS symptoms. Studies suggest that people living with MS are less active than those without MS. Previously, this team from the University of California at San Francisco used a FitBit (step activity counter) to remotely monitor physical activity changes over a year in 95 people with MS. They found that decreases in steps were linked to increases in disability progression.
  • This Study: In a follow-up study funded by the National MS Society, the team tracked physical activity in 50 people with MS who wore FitBits for 30 days. Individuals were assessed for physical function and underwent MRI scans of the brain and spinal cord.
  • Results: The results showed that people with lower step counts had worse physical function on measures of disability, walking speed and endurance, and bowel/bladder function, than people with higher step counts. People with lower step counts also had less tissue in the parts of the brain and spinal cord than people with higher step counts.
  • Meaning: This study suggests that monitoring people’s steps remotely may serve as an indirect measure of brain and spinal cord health. Step counting also has potential as an inexpensive, noninvasive way of tracking improvement or worsening of function. Further research is needed to determine if increasing people’s step counts can improve their physical functions or protect the brain and spinal cord from tissue volume loss.
Learn more about exercise, physical activity, and wellness
Get exercise and physical activity guidelines and helpful videos for ALL people with MS
Is something getting in the way of becoming more active? The Centers for Disease Control provides tips for overcoming barriers.
Association of daily physical activity with brain volumes and cervical spinal cord areas in multiple sclerosis,” by Drs. Valerie J Block , Shuiting Cheng, Jeremy Juwono, Richard Cuneo, Gina Kirkish, Amber M Alexander, Mahir Khan , Amit Akula, Eduardo Caverzasi, Nico Papinutto, William A Stern, Mark J Pletcher, Gregory M Marcus, Jeffrey E Olgin, Stephen L Hauser , Jeffrey M Gelfand, Riley Bove , Bruce AC Cree† and Roland G Henry is published in The MS Journal (published online December 27, 2022, available for free via Open Access).

About Multiple Sclerosis

Multiple sclerosis is an unpredictable, often disabling disease of the central nervous system. Symptoms range from numbness and tingling to blindness and paralysis, and there is currently no cure for MS. The progress, severity and specific symptoms of MS in any one person cannot yet be predicted, but advances in research and treatment are leading to better understanding and moving us closer to a world free of MS. An estimated 1 million people live with MS in the United States. Most people with MS are diagnosed between the ages of 20 and 50, and it affects women three times more than men.


© 2023 The National Multiple Sclerosis Society is a tax exempt 501(c)3 nonprofit organization. Its Identification Number (EIN) is 13-5661935.