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Exercise and stress relief may be vital to lupus treatment according to an Ohio State study

Lucy Bartimole leading a tai chi class for SMILE participants. Credit: Courtesy of Dr. Nicholas Young.

An Ohio State study shows frequent exercise and stress reduction help to reduce inflammation that causes many symptoms in lupus patients, which results in better health over time.

Initially,  a study done on mice with lupus found that daily moderate exercise for 45 minutes helped to severely reduce inflammatory damage to kidneys compared to mice with lupus who did not exercise regularly.

Lupus is a chronic disease that inflames joints, kidneys, brain cells and other body systems, according to the Mayo clinic.

“Exercise significantly made a difference in how the kidney looks in terms of inflammation,” said Nicholas Young, senior author of the study and a research scientist in rheumatology and immunology at The Wexner Medical Center. “What was novel about the study is that no one has demonstrated that before. No one has looked at the kidney and said, ‘Just by exercising, we are making a change in cellular infiltration.’”

To expand the research, the mice with lupus were faced with a “previously established animal model” to induce stress in the form of a much larger, stronger mouse.

Stressed mice showed the exact opposite result compared to moderately exercised mice. Inflammation-causing indicators drastically increased for the animals, Young said.

“All the things that are associated with inflammation, we are showing that just by exercising, you are making it better, and by psychologically stressing the mouse, you are making it worse.” Young said. “It is impacting the immune system directly.”

The results led Young to consider the possibility of helping people treat their lupus along with the use of conventional drug therapy.

Seventeen lupus patients were enrolled in the Stress Moderation Impacting Lupus with Exercise pilot study, a study in which its participants were enrolled in a daily tai chi program led by Lucy Bartimole, a managing partner and instructor at Shift, a studio in Grandview Heights.

“The movements that tai chi offers are gentle and supportive of the joints,” Bartimole said. “The other piece to it is that it is a very calming and relaxing practice.”

With the two aspects of moderate exercise along with the stress-relief factor of tai chi, it was almost a perfect fit for lupus patients and Young’s study.

The results from this initial human study are similar to that of the mice. There were significant decreases in the inflammation-causing indicators that have prompted Young and his team of researchers to seek funding for a larger human trial, Young said.

“We are making a difference on a cellular level and immunological level to decrease inflammation,” he said.

The initial pilot study lasted 2 1/2 months, leaving Young curious as to what the possibilities could be with this intervention over a longer period of time.

“If you could make this much of a difference in inflammatory [indicator] production over that short of a window of time imagine if they did this for two years,” Young said. “How good would they do compared to someone else that didn’t?”

Young said they want to do a larger study with more people over a longer period of time, but need funding to continue.

Young said he sees the possibility of this treatment having an immediate impact for patients to decrease inflammation in not just lupus but many other diseases, and looks forward to how this could be used in the future.

“I could see a situation where a doctor writes a prescription for exercise,” Young said. “Then the insurance company could help pay for the trainer or the gym to do that and they could all do better.”

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