Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease (CMT) is a serious, heritable condition characterized by progressive damage to the peripheral nerves. Peripheral nerves carry signals from the brain to the muscles to control movement, and sensory messages from the rest of the body to the brain.

Damage to peripheral nerves causes nerve signals to the muscles to be inconsistent, which then causes muscles to atrophy or weaken. It can also lead to a loss of sensation in the extremities and cause clumsiness or problems with balance.

A consistent exercise regimen is one approach that can help with both problems, potentially delaying disease progression. This can also help improve patients’ confidence, fitness, and mobility.

Who should exercise?

Both children and adults with CMT should get regular exercise and participate in physical activities. It is important for people with CMT to maintain movement, muscle strength, and flexibility, but it is impossible to build up muscles that have already atrophied. The best program, therefore, focuses on strengthening unaffected muscles that can support and compensate for the atrophied ones.

How much exercise and what type?

Each individual is different, and it is normal that some patients may not be able to perform some types of exercises. It is important to work with a physician or physical therapist to develop an exercise and stretching routine that will maximize exercise benefits while maintaining safety.

Many CMT patients have motor control and sensory problems in their feet and ankles. Therefore, high impact exercises that involve running or jumping may not be safe.

Exercise for children with CMT

In general, children with CMT should take part in aerobic, muscle-strengthening, bone-strengthening, and balance exercises and activities. This should involve approximately an hour of exercise or activity per day, with at least three days of moderately vigorous activity that is age-appropriate and fun but not harmful for the child’s condition. Whenever possible, children should continue to wear their braces while exercising or playing.

Recommended activities for children with CMT include:

  • Bike riding
  • Games of catch
  • Swimming
  • Resistance exercises
  • Video exercise games on Playstation, Wii, or Xbox
  • Low impact martial arts, such as Tai Chi, which is focused on building balance and strength

Children should also be encouraged to free-play.

Exercise for adults with CMT

It is recommended that patients engage in about two and a half hours of aerobic exercise or activity per week, in 10-minute bursts spread throughout the week. Patients should focus on bone- and muscle-strengthening exercises at least two days per week.

It is important that patients avoid inactivity and continue to wear braces during exercise whenever possible. Adults with sensory or motor problems in their feet or ankles should not participate in exercises that cause their feet to leave the ground.

Recommended activities include:

  • Riding or rowing exercises, such as a stationary bike, tandem bike, recumbent bike, elliptical machine, or rowing machine
  • Swimming
  • Water aerobics
  • Vigorous gardening with components such as digging and lifting
  • Household chores, such as laundry, sweeping, and putting groceries away
  • Resistance exercises with bands, machines, dumbbells, or body weight resistance
  • Yoga
  • Pilates
  • Tai Chi

Additional resources

An exercise video series created by a physiotherapist for CMT patients is available from the Charcot-Marie-Tooth Association.

A booklet with basic stretches and exercises for CMT patients is available from CMT UK.

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Charcot-Marie-Tooth News is strictly a news and information website about the disease. It does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website.