We all know that exercise is good for your heart, but you may not realize that exercise can improve the quality of life for people living with multiple sclerosis (MS), too. It has been shown to improve bowel and bladder symptoms, combat fatigue, increase muscle strength, and fight depression — all common symptoms of MS.
What type of exercise is best? Whatever you choose! It’s important to consult your doctor before beginning any exercise program, but depending on your interests and level of fitness, you can go with anything from gardening to running marathons. The point is to find something that gets you moving and that you enjoy doing. If you hate the gym, adapt a routine for the place where you feel most comfortable, whether that’s the great outdoors or your own home. If your symptoms get worse in the heat, try swimming, which is less likely to cause overheating. If you have a disability that you need to work around, turn to your local MS-Society chapter to see if they offer exercise classes, or try seated yoga and/or aerobic exercises. Experiment and see what piques your interest; you are much more likely to stick to a routine if you’re doing something you enjoy. Better still, drag a friend along to keep you motivated and engaged.
Since everyone living with MS is different, there is no cookie-cutter exercise routine that’s recommended. However, there are certainly popular options, which may or may not interest you. These include:
Yoga, Pilates, and Tai Chi: These exercises emphasize breathing, stretching, and balance. They are especially good for improving core strength, and flexibility. Workouts can be adapted to your ability level, and many poses can be done from a chair if needed. You can attend classes or use videos at home.
Swimming: Water provides support for weak limbs and allows for a greater range of motion — plus it keeps you cool while you work out! Swimming is excellent exercise, but even if you aren’t able to swim laps, there are many other ways to take advantage of the water. Popular choices include water tai chi, water aerobics, and in-water strengthening exercises such as leg lifts and marching in place. If you are feeling especially adventurous, try water sports like snorkeling, kayaking, or rowing.
Biking: Build muscle and take advantage of cool breezes at the same time! If the thought of flying around on two wheels scares you, try a three-wheeled–seated trike instead.
Horseback riding: Many MSers rave about therapeutic horseback riding, which is another terrific exercise for building core strength and improving balance. Local stables often have riding programs for people living with disabilities.
Classes for seniors: Even if you’re not a senior, these classes are generally affordable and move at a slower pace. People of any age who have MS are usually welcome to join in.
Floor exercises: There are a ton of exercises that can be done on a floor mat. They range from strength-building exercises to simple stretching. These exercises can be done at home, and are widely available on cable TV channels and YouTube.
Whatever you choose to do, follow these basic fitness rules in order to maximize your success:
- Warm up: Do a short warm-up and stretch before your workout and a cooldown and stretch after. This will help prevent injury and minimize soreness.
- Listen to your body: Rest if you need to, and adapt to your own personal needs. For example, if your legs are feeling weak, work on your arms that day.
- Drink up: Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate. Then hydrate some more.
- Dress for success: Wear supportive shoes and breathable clothing.
While studies conclusively show that regular exercise can improve MS symptoms, getting overheated can acutely worsen symptoms. But don’t worry, there are ways to beat the heat while staying in shape. Here are a few tips for keeping cool:
- Wear cooling gear: There are tons of cooling vests and moisture-wicking clothing out there. My favorite cooling accessories are Mission Athletecare’s cooling arm sleeves and cooling towels. You add water to both items, ring them out, and they instantly become cold. I drape the towel around my neck, and it keeps me nice and chilled. These are popular products among competitive athletes, too, so they can usually be found at any sporting-goods store.
- Use a spray bottle: The quickest and most efficient method of cooling is evaporation. With that in mind, I am always armed with one of those spray bottles with an attached fan. A couple of sprays and some fanning can help keep you cool whether you’re sitting at the beach or doing your thing at the gym.
- Hydrate: Hydration is key! And while you’re at it, drink ice-cold water to keep yourself cool from the inside out. Some people like to throw grapes in the freezer so they can snack on them during their workouts.
- Time your workouts: If you live in a warmer climate, work out in the morning or evening when temperatures are at their lowest.
If you’re not sure which type of exercise is right for you, do some research online and find something that interests you. Be sure to talk to your doctor before starting any kind of workout program. Then set an attainable goal for yourself, and get moving! Good luck! We will be cheering for you!
Stephanie Buxhoeveden MSCN, FNP-BC
Stephanie is a nurse practitioner who was diagnosed with MS at age 25. Shortly after being diagnosed she realized she could use her experiences as a patient to make a difference in the lives of others, so she became a multiple sclerosis certified nurse. Stephanie completed her master’s in nursing at Rutgers University, and now specializes in the care of people with MS and other neurological diseases.
Her blog, www.justkeepsmyelin.com, offers a unique perspective on MS from both a healthcare provider’s point of view, and through the eyes of a person living with the disease every day. Her mission is to bring compassion, humor, and a deeper understanding of MS to anyone who reads it. She also writes for MultipleSclerosis.net, MSFocus Magazine, serves as a District Activist Leader for the National MS Society and is on the membership committee of iConquerMS.benefits of exercise, exercising with ms, staying cool while exercising, types of exercises for people with ms