Let’s Get Horizontal with Multiple Sclerosis

Claudia Dieckmann
Written by
Claudia Dieckmann

Why do I swim?

I swim because I can. When multiple sclerosis hit, I found that an increase in core body temperature caused a flare up of my symptoms. My balance was also affected as well as my vision. This meant no more running, biking, hiking, climbing, ball sports, even gym work was challenging. I could no longer do most of the things I loved to do before my diagnosis. But swimming was a wonderful outlet for me. The cool, weightless environment was perfect for me. Luckily, I have swum all my life and am very comfortable in the water, whether it be the pool, the sea or fresh water.

Swimming allows me to still be active and competitive, and these aspects of the activity are important to me. They are a part of who I am, and make me feel purposeful and alive. On an emotional level, they create a feeling of belonging and achievement. As an added bonus, they improve my mood and decrease my stress. I train a few times a week, making sure I listen to my body. I don’t try comparing myself to others, and make goals based on my ability and capabilities. Management tactics on the day of a competition include letting the event medics or organisers know I have MS, and ensuring there is someone at the finish line to help me out of the water if needs be.

Physiology of Swimming

Regardless if you are living with MS or not, swimming has great cardiovascular and strength benefits for your body .

There are a plethora of videos online that will explain scientifically and in-depth the anatomy and physiology of swimming, but at a basic level it is an all over body workout allowing you to focus on certain muscle groups . Adapted swimming techniques can strengthen muscles and even decrease disability. In brief, swimming improves endurance, flexibility, and balance.

Psychology of Swimming

Again, the benefits of swimming are relevant for people with or without MS. Given, the psychological advantages of swimming are less documented than the physical benefits, but can be just as important to a person’s wellbeing.

Research states that swimming reduces tension, anger and depression. I read an article that describes the “Zen” of swimming, a practice that focuses on what is happening at the current moment, whether it’s sight, a sound, a taste, a smell, a sensation on the body or your mental activity.

My experience has been that swimming while living with multiple sclerosis has made me happier and healthier than if I were living a sedentary lifestyle.

But above all, swimming is fun!

Benefits of Swimming for People with MS

• Buoyancy: Water allows people to do exercises that may otherwise be difficult on land. 90% of your body is buoyant. People with MS find it easier to stand in water. There will be no pounding or jarring. There is less chance of an injury in water than on land.

• Cooling Effect: Water offers a less chance of overheating. It continuously cools the body making you more comfortable than on land.

• Viscosity: Water offers resistance. You move more slowly in water and this allows you to work on skills such as balance and coordination. Water’s viscosity can also improve muscle strength.

• Hydrostatic Pressure: Water creates the sensation of compression. The deeper you go, the more pressure, giving you support for standing activities, such as walking .

• Adaptability: If you get bored with one routine, or you find a certain activity too difficult, you can try something else!

• Social Time, whether it’s splashing around with your kids or grandkids, or exercising with a group.

A recent case study focused on John Thompson , who suffers from progressive MS and swims three times a week, and has found a multitude of benefits. He believes the cool water prevents exacerbations of his symptoms, and swimming has helped him improve this upper body strength and muscle tone, which has directly helped with his ability to transfer from his wheelchair. And because swimming is a cardiovascular activity, it has also improved his circulation and breathing. Exercise itself has improved his bowel function, it acts as a mood enhancer and he uses swimming as a weight management tool.

Water Therapy Options

There are many water exercise options when you have MS, including:

• Water Walking: Moving forward, backward, and sideward, using regular, short, quick, or long steps, in waist-deep or chest-deep water.

• Water Aerobics: Full body rhythmic exercises conducted in shallow and/or deep water for 20 minutes or more, designed to provide cardiovascular benefits.

• Water Yoga and Relaxation: Gentle, easy-flowing moves using the water as a relaxation medium.

• Water Fitness Products: Professional products designed and manufactured specifically for water fitness activities - for toning, strengthening, and endurance work. Such products add variety to the class, motivate students, and create additional resistance and support.

• Lap Swimming: If the individual is a proficient swimmer, swimming back and forth using various swimming strokes is a possibility. However, we suggest that lap swimmers also consider other forms of water exercise in addition to lap swimming.

There are other options and water classes and therapies available, such as Water Toning, Flexibility Training, and Wall Exercises. My recommendation would be to contact your local pool and ask them; “what is the temperature of the water”, “do they offer water exercise classes” and, if needed, “do they have a lift access into the pool”?

Additionally, if you’re interested in checking out a charitable Swim for MS organization in your area, visit the local pages or sites for Australia, South Africa, the United States or the United Kingdom.

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