Friday 20 July 2018

A short-term aquatic exercise intervention for (some) individuals with CFS/ME?

I have to say that I did um-and-ah about whether or not to make this blog entry on the results published by Suzanne Broadbent and colleagues [1]. In it, researchers talked about the use of "a short-term aquatic exercise programme" with a small group of women diagnosed with chronic fatigue syndrome/myalgic encephalomyelitis (CFS/ME).

My 'in two minds' state was because the words 'exercise as intervention' and 'CFS/ME' have a rather poor history both in research and clinical terms; as proposals like 'graded exercise therapy' (GET) have the ability to invoke some rather adverse memories and reports for some/many people (see here and see here). As you can see, I did in the end decide that science should be seen and heard, even if it might be a tad uncomfortable. As hopefully you'll see, the Broadbent results might even provide some much needed focus in the area of activity and exercise with CFS/ME in mind minus any sweeping generalisations and psychobabble explanations which have typically followed such research.

Before progressing through their paper, it is worth mentioning that some of the authors on this most recent paper have some 'research form' when it comes to looking at exercise in the context of CFS/ME. Yes, there is mention of the words 'graded exercise' [2] in previous publications, but interestingly this is wrapped in the context of "immune system dysfunction in chronic fatigue syndrome/myalgic encephalomyelitis (CFS/ME)" and their looking at various biological aspects of exercise [3] with an immune system slant to it. This is not your regular 'de-conditioning' thinking...

Aquatic exercise was the name of the research game on this most recent occasion, and an open trial detailing various physiological and behavioural measures pre- and post-use of "an initial 20-min aquatic exercise session then two self-paced 20-min sessions per week for 4 weeks" with 11 women. As you can already see, this was not a controlled trial and there was no comparison group used; just an initial research foray looking at whether their fairly brief water-based exercise program might produce some meaningful results or not. I assume that the authors were conscious that water-based exercise has some advantages over er, not water-based activity, in relation to impact (aquatic exercise is typically termed 'low impact) and also strength-building (water resistance is much greater than air resistance). I might also add that others have been following the development of this trial with some interest (see here).

'First, do no harm' is a primary tenet in all of medicine, and on the basis of "no reports of symptom exacerbation" in their small participant cohort, the authors can tick an important item of their research checklist on this occasion. Alongside, authors detail results based on various physiological parameters: "6 min Walk Test (6MWT), perceived exertion (RPE), hand grip strength, Sit-to-Stand, Sit-Reach test, Apley's shoulder test" as well as monitoring heart rate after each session. There's even mention of "24- and 48-h post-session tiredness/pain scores" which, I assume, could be stretched to mean looking at aspects of an important symptom: post-extertional malaise (PEM). And on that basis the authors reported that many of those physiological parameters did show changes between pre- and post-intervention in relation to things like grip strength, the 6MWT and also pain ("24-h post-test tiredness and pain decreased"). Ergo, aquatic exercise was seemingly well-tolerated in their small participant group and further - more scientifically 'stronger' - investigations are perhaps indicated to substantiate this finding.

When I first tweeted about the Broadbent article, it did create some discussion (see here). I wasn't surprised by this given the nature of the trial and some of the references to other peer-reviewed research made by authors. It's not easy to put into words how much damage has been done by the widespread (universal?) advocacy of something like GET when it comes to ME/CFS. Suffice to say that for many people with CFS/ME, any study that mentions 'exercise' as an intervention is likely to be met with a degree of scepticism. Once bitten and all that. And I also note the words "raising the possibility that there could be future lawsuits from ME patients whose condition has worsened from the treatment" have recently been mentioned in relation to GET...

But I do think there is more research to be done in this area on the back of the Broadbent results. Minus hype, sweeping generalisation and again importantly without any 'psychological theory' input, further analysis of the physiological effects of exercise on those with ME/CFS is a must, particularly with something like PEM in mind. No, I'm not advocating research practices that unethically put people with CFS/ME onto exercise regimes, but rather smaller research steps starting, for example, with the greater use of actigraphy on a day-to-day basis. It's been a real point of contention that actigraphy - the (objective) study of rest and activity cycles - has not been more incorporated into CFS/ME research (see here). Particularly, when discussions about 'recovery' from ME/CFS have been prominent in many quarters (see here) seemingly without mention of objective ways and means of establishing parameters of such recovery. I'd also suggest that the authors' previous work on immune function following exercise could also be applied to further aquatic exercise research too...


[1] Broadbent S. et al. Effects of a short-term aquatic exercise intervention on symptoms and exercise capacity in individuals with chronic fatigue syndrome/myalgic encephalomyelitis: a pilot study. Eur J Appl Physiol. 2018 Jun 19.

[2] Broadbent S. & Coutts R. Intermittent and graded exercise effects on NK cell degranulation markers LAMP-1/LAMP-2 and CD8+CD38+ in chronic fatigue syndrome/myalgic encephalomyelitis. Physiol Rep. 2017 Mar;5(5). pii: e13091.

[3] Broadbent S. & Coutts R. Graded versus Intermittent Exercise Effects on Lymphocytes in Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2016 Sep;48(9):1655-63.


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