ALS and exercise

Exercise Following an ALS Diagnosis

Following an ALS diagnosis it’s important to carefully consider the options when it comes to physical therapy and activity.

Whilst exercise cannot prevent the progression of the disease, it can offer numerous benefits such as maintaining joint mobility and muscle strength, as well as improving mood and psychological wellbeing.

Understanding ALS

Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis is a rare, debilitating neurodegenerative disease that is thought to affect around 30,000 people across the US at any one time. It progressively destroys nerves in the body and the major symptoms are loss of muscle strength and function leading to eventual paralysis.

Whilst there are a lot of challenges to be faced with this disease, exercise following an ALS diagnosis has been shown to have significant benefits, especially in the early stages of the disease.

It will not only help maintain muscle strength for as long as possible, it can have a hugely positive psychological impact on the individual.

Even as ALS progresses and becomes more severe, assistive devices can be used to help the individual take part in physical therapy exercises to a certain extent.

Here we take a closer look at how exercise can help following an ALS diagnosis and what important things need to be considered. 

Benefits of Exercise Following an ALS Diagnosis

In general, there are many benefits from undertaking a regular exercise regime and this is no different for those who have ALS, although there may be more limits regarding what can be achieved and more care will likely need to be taken.

There are a range of different exercises that improve muscle function, maintain strength and endurance for longer and improve mood, including helping to prevent issues such as depression.

Of course, exercise is not a cure for ALS and muscle weakness will continue to get worse as the disease progresses. Exercise, however, should assist in maximizing muscle performance and may help reduce issues such as pain in joints and loss of motion.

Physical therapy has been shown to have an impact in the early stages of ALS, according to research. For example, one study showed that early physiotherapy helped to improve lung function. In another study, it improved scores on the ALS functional rating scale-revised.

Exercise Guidelines

Physical therapy can play significant role to an individual living with ALS, but care needs to be taken. It might be tempting to jump on the treadmill or head to the gym following an ALS diagnosis, however, it’s important to get the input of a qualified physical therapist.

Physical therapy will take different forms depending on the stage of ALS. For example, in the beginning, a therapist will work with an individual to find which exercises can help with management of the symptoms associated with the disease. In they later stages, they may assist those caring for the individual in providing support when doing home exercises.

They should also be able to offer advice regarding any assistive devices that could help the individual to exercise effectively.

Types of Exercise

ALS patient stretching

There are a range of different options when it comes to physical therapy and much will depend on how far the disease has progressed.

Types of exercise include:

  • Aerobic training: This not only improves muscle endurance, it also benefits the lungs, boosting capacity and efficiency.
  • Range of motion exercises: An issue that many ALS patients have is being able to move their joints in the full range of motion. Simple exercises here can improve this motility and reduce the risk of painful joints.
  • Stretching exercises: Muscle cramping can be an issue with ALS and stretching exercises will help reduce pain and stiffness from occuring.

Strengthening exercises are not generally recommended. The reason for this is they are unlikely to improve already weakened muscles and could facilitate the weakening of other muscle groups.

Assistive Devices

Exercise following an ALS diagnosis doesn’t have to be carried out in a gym. A regular walk can help maintain mobility and strength in many cases. If someone is unsteady on their feet, however, this can still be difficult.

Fortunately, there are assistive devices that help people with ALS cope with getting out and about. One of the most common in the early stages of the disease is the cane. The best way to use this is to hold it on the stronger side and put weight onto the weaker side. If there is significant leg weakness, then a device such as a walker may be more useful.

Bracing is another form of assistive technology that can benefit individuals who have been diagnosed with ALS. If they have a weak ankle or leg, they can wear a brace to support these areas and allow for better movement.

A wheelchair is another option that can be used if walking causes too much fatigue or the individual is unsteady on their feet. However, it’s important to work closely with a physical and occupational therapist to find the right solutions when it comes to assistive technology.