MS Awareness Week is from 22nd to 28th April so I have decided that I would write my blog focusing on something I am really passionate about – staying active and using exercise to help with MS symptoms. I believe that everyone who has MS can introduce some form of activity into their routine, whether it’s running a marathon (not for me!!), doing Tai Chi or Yoga (there’s some great seated yoga exercises for wheelchair users too) or going for a light walk.
Why should I do some exercise?
It’s completely understandable if you feel that the idea of joining a gym and going and doing a High Intensity Interval class or Boxercise session is outside of your grasp… but research does indicate that getting our 30 minutes of exercise a day (and that might be broken into short little 5-10 minute bursts or one bigger 30 minute block) has positive benefits such as:
- Improved mood – exercising releases the feel good hormone (serotonin)
- Decreases the risk of being overweight and suffering heart disease (this is the same for people without MS too)
- Reduced MS symptoms – some exercises can improve balance, coordination and can improve walking ability and increased flexibility. Stretches, pilates and yoga have been reported to help a number of MSers overcome pain.
- Strengthened muscles will help you stay mobile for longer decreasing your reliance on mobility aids
I am not going to go on about this because we all already know how amazing exercise is generally, and even more so for people with MS. Unless you WANT to exercise, feel fitter and healthier and have found some motivation to get out there, then no matter what I write in this blog will change anything.
What types of ‘exercise’ should I be doing?
There isn’t a single exercise that is recommended for people with MS actually. This is because MS affects everyone in different ways – what works for some people might not work for others (for example my MS affects my legs more than my upper body). When I was trying to re-introduce exercise back into my life again after having completely stopped being active was that I needed it to be something that I felt confident that I could do (so I didn’t feel defeated every time I tried it) and that I really enjoyed doing (so that I actually wanted to do it each day).
Staying active isn’t just about doing things that you would have once considered to be ‘exercise’, and you don’t need to be going out to your local recreational centre or buying any fancy clothes. Anything you do that makes you get a little bit out of breath and gets your heart rate up will count as part of your activity. That might be doing some housework, picking up some groceries, doing some gardening or moving around the house quicker than you did before, or sit and watch TV on a balance ball rather than the sofa. It might even be getting off the bus earlier and walking the last little stretch (I realise that some of these are far from easy).
I know that MS makes things much harder to exercise – it might be that you have limp legs or fierce fatigue, or that you have awful balance, or you just cannot manage to get out to the gym. Honestly though – I believe that unless you are stuck in bed and cannot move, you will be able to stay active in some way with adaptations.
In my local area there are special sessions put on by the MS Society that are adapted to all people with MS of all severities. These have included zumba, circuits, boxercise and tennis for example. There might be similar things in your area – and if there isn’t, why not just create your own adapted sessions suited to your exact needs?!
How do I start?
I am no expert but I would say start small and slow and build it up. It might be exciting to start a new routine, but it might come back and bite you the next day. Maybe challenge yourself to improve a little each day/week so you don’t end up too fatigued, or feel defeated if you can’t manage something. This will help you work out what are the best exercises for you, and what your own limits are.
The only reason I say this is because when I decided that I wanted to get back into exercising again I joined a local gym and I went to some kind of fitness class. I was so motivated to do well that I threw myself 110% into it. I didn’t tell the instructor that I had MS and he pushed me HARD. To look at me, I should have been the fittest person in that room by a mile and he assumed that I was. Sadly, I learned my lesson the hard way because my legs completely stopped working mid class and I did not recover for a good length of time. This was really scary because my legs had previously been really bad and I had worked so hard in physio to get them where I could walk OK again, and I was so worried that this was them giving up for good (they are ok by the way!)
What did Zoe do to get active again?
To get me back on my feet, I was going to physiotherapy and despite the pain I did continue to walk everywhere I could but I had completely given up on most other activity.
I did some research and found that increased activity would be really beneficial in managing pain and fatigue, and I was missing being as active as I used to be. As you saw from my story above, I made a real hash of getting back into exercise at first as I tried to go it alone. After chatting with my MS nurse and neurologist to check it was ok – I found a personal trainer who specialised in neurological conditions in my local area.
We had an extensive consultation about my needs and what I could and couldn’t do, and what my personal goals were for the sessions. My trainer then came up with a personal plan for me to work on covering balance, core strength and flexibility. We really wanted to target areas that were badly affected by my MS. An example of this is my legs and my back. By working on my core strength, balance and posture, I have been able to reduce the pain in my back and limit the amount of pain medication I take for that.
I am sure that many of you are the same in that you are badly affected on one side more than the other. My left leg has been left much weaker by a previous relapse, so this was a target area.
Now I don’t go to the gym because I found it too much of a struggle to get out of one set of clothes, into another set, to exercise and then get washed and changed again. All of that in itself for me felt like a workout. Due to the mammoth task of getting changed, I noticed that I started enjoying sessions less and less and they were becoming less beneficial. I now do my exercises (yoga, stretching and strengthening mainly) at home in my PJs each morning before work which is much more manageable for me.
6 Top Tips for Getting Active
- Always ask the pros for their advice first before you embark on any new routine. They can help you decide on whether an activity is right for you and they can give you tips on how to adapt activities depending on your need.
- Take it slow and don’t rush into it – set yourself mini challenges and increase each day/week. Maybe you think you will still be able to swim 50 lengths in one go but it will feel like a crushing defeat if you can only do 2 lengths. It is better to pace yourself as well – you never know what impact this exercise will have the next day
- Tell someone where you are – if you are going to the gym or the park etc. let someone know what you are doing and where you are just in case you need a helping hand
- Find a pro – if you are looking for a trainer to help you out, look for one that knows about MS. Not all personal trainers or physios know about MS and so can set you off on a personal training plan that is not suitable
- Recover – allow yourself time to recover. Although people say ‘no pain no gain’ – this isn’t really true with MS. If you are in pain, listen to your body and don’t push yourself too hard.
- Keep it going – don’t forget that the many positive benefits of exercise last only as long as you keep it up for. Try and keep going by adding lots of different activities into your routine to prevent you getting bored, make your exercise routines fun, do activities with a friend, set yourself challenges (maybe get a pedometer and challenge yourself to walk more steps), or turn it into a way for you to raise money so you have a goal.