Exercise and MS

When you Google “Multiple Sclerosis and Exercise”, not too many options appear in the search results. What does come up in the results are usually one page of information about taking it easy, not exerting yourself and watching out for overheating. The recommendations are usually aqua-aerobics, yoga or tai-chi. I’m not saying that swimming or yoga are bad forms of exercise, but they are not the ONLY forms of exercise that are good or beneficial for us MSers. In fact, I find it somewhat frustrating that this is the picture painted of what is allowed and expected of individuals who have MS. In fact, I believe this is what is perpetuating the stereotype of rampant disability in MS.
Benefits of Exercise
Exercise and movement is imperative for cellular and bodily function. Many processes in our bodies need us to move in order to function properly. How you define exercise is up to you, but there’s no doubt that it is a positive thing. Multiple studies have proven that exercise can be helpful for decreasing depression, improving energy, sleep and many other benefits. The benefits of exercise for us MSers are vary similar. Including the benefits listed above, other benefits include improvements with fatigue, pain, muscle tone, stability, balance, coordination, quality of life, social interaction, strength, gait issues and many others. All studies that I reviewed stated that participants saw improvements while participating in exercise than compared to when they were not exercising. However, some forms of exercise were superior to others in terms of participants retaining their gains over time.
Exercise for MS
Exercise is clearly beneficial for MSers, but what type? if not only yoga or swimming, what else is there? In my opinion, as an individual with MS and a Certified Personal Trainer, I believe that everyone should be doing what they can and want to be doing. That’s not a cop out answer, but as MS is an individual disease, your exercise program should be individualized as well. Just like there are no ‘one size fits all’ diets, there are no ‘one size fits all’ workout plans when talking about working out with MS (or working out in general).
Many exercises are positive for MSers. From walking to strength training, if your symptoms and body allow it, go for it. If you’re new to working out, and eventually want to workout for 30 minutes at a time, I recommend starting with 10 minutes at a time, then gradually increasing and seeing how your body responds and try this 3 days a week. I also recommend talking to your doc, physical therapist or a personal trainer to get a program to work with. Yes, there are many programs available online. Many are great, but many are not so great. Speaking with a professional that can speak to you about symptoms, goals and create a plan based on those can be very helpful.  The bottom line is don’t let a diagnosis stop you from starting or continuing physical activity. 
Exercise Considerations for MSers
There are many things to take into consideration when thinking about working out with MS. Some key symptoms to be aware of are balance, stability and gait. Basically anything that will interfere with preforming exercises in a safe way and with proper form. If symptoms interfere with those two things, then you should find a new exercise. Something else that I hear often is that fatigue gets in the way of working out. Let me start out by saying, I get you. I’ve been there tooThis is where we have options:
  1. Not working out at all. That’s perfectly ok! When I feel like getting up to get water is the hardest thing in the world, there’s no way that you could get me to do a workout, no matter how much I wanted to.
  2. Trying to move in ANY way. This is usually the option I like, and try to get to. Whether it’s a walk to the end of the street, 5-10 minutes of yoga or stretching in your living room, just getting some movement in for your cells is great.
Obviously it will be your choice about what you choose. But no matter what you choose, don’t let the opinion of others cloud your thought process, and please don’t judge yourself. Something to remember is that working out helps to relieve fatigue. I know that seems counter intuitive, but it is one of the symptoms that improves for everyone when they exercise.
Also, overheating is a concern for many. When our body temperature rises, often times we experience and increase in symptoms. These aren’t new symptoms, but something called a pseudo-exacerbation, where old symptoms become unmasked. Depending on your disease course, this could bring an end to your workout real quick. Therefore, staying cool during a workout is very important. Drinking ice water is one of the fastest ways to bring down your body temperature. Having that on hand for your workout is a great idea. Also, having a cool towel to use to cool off every so often is helpful. Being mindful about time of day and environment is helpful as well. Mid day isn’t the best time, and a hot gym might not be the best sometimes either. If these can’t be avoided, either ask for a fan or bring your own if one can’t be provided.
Something I have learned since having MS is that we need to be our own best advocate. Please don’t be nervous to ask for what you need, or to supply it yourself. You’d be surprised at what people and places allow you to do on your own, especially if they can’t do it for you.
Having MS doesn’t mean we have to quit working out, quite the contrary actually. We just need to be aware of our bodies, symptoms and make sure that whatever exercise we are participating in is helpful and not harmful. If you are interested in learning more about a specific workout plan, feel free to contact me here, we can work together to figure out a plan that is best for you!
As always, leave me a comment and tell me your thoughts! I’d love to hear what you think about exercise, or what society thinks about MSers and exercise.