Illustration depicting a woman stretching Victoria Borges

Recent research from UVA suggests that exercise may help fight two serious medical conditions: progressive neuromuscular disease Friedreich’s ataxia and vision-robbing macular degeneration.

Friedreich’s ataxia is a rare inherited disease that causes progressive damage to the nervous system and impairs movement. But research in the lab of UVA’s Dr. Zhen Yan found that regular exercise prevented the onset of symptoms in mice.

“The exercise does not mitigate the genetic defect,” Yan explains, but rather helps maintain mitochondrial health “and therefore mitigates the onset of symptoms.” The research, which was published in Scientific Reports, suggests the potential benefit of more widespread genetic screening for the disease, which otherwise typically is diagnosed only after symptoms develop, Yan says. It is also possible, he adds, that further research could lead to identifying or developing therapeutics that could mimic the benefits of exercise.

In another mouse study, assistant professor Brad Gelfand of UVA’s Center for Advanced Vision Science has found that exercise appears to reduce the harmful overgrowth of blood vessels in the eye that contributes to macular degeneration, which is a leading cause of vision loss in older adults. Speaking about the research for the School of Medicine’s The Making of Medicine blog, Gelfand noted that the benefits were seen at low levels of exercise, which suggests one more potential health benefit of moderate exercise.