Friends, family, doctors, websites, social media… sometimes it can feel like all avenues of advice are telling you that exercise helps MS. Now, we know that on bad days pulling on a pair of trainers can feel like the last thing you want to do (or even can do!), but on those good days, what kinds of exercise should you be doing? How often? And how much should you push yourself?
The truth is that (much like anyone without MS) we should all be exercising based on our own needs, so the answers to these questions will be different for everybody.
Exercise as physical therapy
However, while many people exercise in order to improve their fitness level (or perhaps to lose that extra holiday weight), with MS, exercise is a hugely important tool for improving how well our bodies can function; it is a form of therapy.
Doing the right exercise can not only help strengthen weak muscles, it can also improve mobility, reduce fatigue and improve overall mood.
Great news, but that still doesn’t help in figuring out what exercise you should be doing, does it?
Here are some basic ideas for creating a physical therapy plan to discuss with your doctor:
Incorporating different types of exercise:
Stretch it out
Spasticity is a symptom of MS which can make your muscles feel stiff and hard to move. Stretching helps with this and improves flexibility, which in turn can make everyday activities (like doing the chores) a lot easier. It’s also a good way to help prevent injuries. 10 minutes of stretching a day and a gentle warm-up and warm-down, is enough to make a difference.
This is the stuff that gets your heart pumping, improves general fitness and can make your whole body a little stronger. Walking, swimming and cycling are good examples of aerobic exercise which can be done at a moderate intensity for two or three hours a week. It’s important to start slow with this one – don’t jump on your bike for an hour’s bike ride from the get go. Aim for shorter spurts of exercise during the first weeks and increase this as time goes by, as your body gets stronger. If you’re not currently doing this kind of exercise regularly and it’s something that you think would be helpful, chat with your medical team about ways to start incorporating aerobic exercise into your lifestyle, and don’t forget to find something that you enjoy!
In MS, damage to nerves makes it hard to move your muscles and they often become weaker as a result. Working your muscles to stay strong is therefore one of the best ways to help control MS symptoms. Strength training twice a week, including a variety of exercises focused around the core, can help improve major muscle groups.
Exercising for your symptoms:
Here are some basic exercises to improve four specific symptoms people with MS commonly experience. Remember, everyone is different, so don’t push yourself too far and be sure to check with your doctor before trying new exercises.
Foot drop (difficulty lifting feet when walking):
Work through these balances, stopping when you start to feel unstable.
Difficulty standing up from a chair:
Rehearsing the individual movements involved in this action can help things work more smoothly.
Always get your doctor involved
These are just a few starting points, the best thing to do is to create a tailored exercise plan with your doctor and regularly check in on your progress.
Once you have your exercise plan in place, it can be tempting to plough full-steam ahead, but this could cause more harm than good. Make sure to start slowly, avoid exercising when your symptoms are flaring and, stay cool and hydrated.