Scientists suggest intensive exercise could increase the risk of motor neurone disease

People who are more genetically vulnerable could be at an increased risk of motor neurone disease from regular, intensive exercise, scientists have claimed.

It is estimated that 300 people will develop motor neurone disease (MND), with up to 5,000 adults in the UK affected at any time.

Research from a team at the University of Sheffield hope their findings can lead the way to potential screening for people who may be more genetically disposed to getting MND, allowing for tailored, accurate advice.

However, the research is not to deter people from continuing to exercise.


Conversations and queries around the link between sport and MND has excelled after many sporting personalities have revealed their experience with the terminal illness.

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

“The numbers of high-profile athletes affected with MND is not a coincidence.”

From the late football player Fernando Ricksen, who passed away in 2019, to former rugby player’s Rob Borrow and Doddie Weir, and footballer Stephen Darby detailing their experiences of MND, the new research shines a significant light on the potential to a link.

Doddie Weir revealed his MND diagnosis in 2017
Credit: SNS GroupSRU

Former studies in Italian footballers suggested their susception to MND was six times higher.


The latest study, published in the EBioMedicine journal, also highlighted that the genes known to increase the risk of MND change their behaviour in response to exercise, and people with the most common mutation linked to MND develop the disease at an earlier age if they exercise strenuously.

Rob Burrow (with his children, pictured) is living with MND
Credit: Leeds Rhinos

Prof Dame Pamela Shaw, the director of the Neuroscience Institute in Sheffield, said: “This 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.”

In the early stages, further research is required and people have been advised that it would do more harm than good to stop exercising in response to these new findings.

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