Intense workouts increase motor neurone disease risk, say scientists

·2-min read
Many genes known to increase the risk of motor neurone disease change their behaviour in response to exercise (AFP via Getty Images)
Many genes known to increase the risk of motor neurone disease change their behaviour in response to exercise (AFP via Getty Images)

Regular and vigorous exercise can increase the risk of motor neurone disease (MND) in people who are genetically vulnerable, a study has found.

MND is a condition which affects the brain and people’s ability to move, talk and even breathe.

It is thought that around one in 300 people will develop motor neurone disease – an illness that can dramatically reduce people’s lives.

A team of scientists at the University of Sheffield analysed data from the UK Biobank project, which includes detailed genetic samples from 500,000 people.

They used a technique called Mendelian randomisation to turn that data into an experiment and showed people whose DNA was more likely to get MND if they do intense activity.

Intense activity was defined as more than 15-30 minutes 2-3 days a week.

The study, published in the journal EBioMedicine, found many genes known to increase the risk of motor neurone disease change their behaviour in response to exercise.

Research also showed that people with the most common mutation linked to MND develop the disease at an earlier age if they exercise strenuously.

"We have conclusively said exercise is a risk factor for motor neurone disease", Dr Johnathan Cooper-Knock, one of the researchers, told the BBC.

While scientists advise that people continue to exercise, they hope their findings can result in effective screenings for those who may be at higher risk.

Dr Cooper-Knock told the broadcaster: "We don’t know who is at risk and we wouldn’t go as far as advising who should and shouldn’t exercise.

"If everyone stopped exercising that would do more harm than good."

Prof Dame Pamela Shaw, the director of the Neuroscience Institute in Sheffield, said the research goes "some way towards unravelling the link between high levels of physical activity and the development of MND in certain genetically at-risk groups."

There has long been a connection between exercise and MND and a growing number of athletes diagnosed with the condition.

Athletes including Doddie Weir, Rob Burrow and Stephen Darby are among those who have MND and have spoken openly about the disease.

It comes as Mr Burrow, who revealed his MND diagnosis in 2019, has been shortlisted for a National Television Award for his documentary Rob Burrow: My Year with MND.

Mr Burrow said: “I am delighted to have been nominated for a National Television Award for our documentary.

“Since my diagnosis I have always said I want to use my voice to help others living with motor neurone disease and that is what I’ll continue to do. There is no cure so I am determined to help families like mine.”

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