Are you one of those people whose nose tends to curl upwards when these four words are heard: exercise and multiple sclerosis? If so, join the club.
No matter where on the MS spectrum you find yourself, sometimes we all loathe the need to go for a brisk walk or sit on our exercise bike or yoga mat. You may, like me, have convinced yourself that no gym instructor or self-designed walking challenge will ever be able to stop MS from mistreating the body it already owns. But there are ways to get out of the exercise funk.
1) There is always tomorrow…
Working-out isn’t just done in a physical manner. It also requires a mental stretch, a state of mind that should support you when your body begins to rebel against the idea that working out is really for fit people only.
Yours truly is no different. My on-again, off-again relationship with physical endeavours is as fickle as MS itself and rather sounds like this, “Been there. Done that. So not doing that again because my bum still hurts from that exercise.” On occasion, I’ve fallen into the trap of thinking: “Tomorrow is another day – I’ll start tomorrow.” Sadly, both are equally damaging to your intentions when it comes to physical wellness.
You’re telling yourself the gym isn’t going anywhere, and neither are you, so you say you’ll see each other in a few days. A week later, common sense is scolding you in no uncertain terms that you made a big mistake giving up instead of pushing your limits, even if those limits only move one inch forward on your exercise plan.
For me, it’s just about remembering, that staying active is one of the best ways to combat physical and mental issues. That’s my motivation for pushing myself out the door. It’s important to figure out what it is that’s going to motivate you and then go from there…
2) Picking the right exercise
The US National MS society, says this, “exercise and keeping as active as possible are cornerstones of managing MS.”2 When done in a responsible way, no matter what type of multiple sclerosis or disability you have, there are definite benefits to be had from being active.
The best place to look for exercise classes is therefore your local MS society or national health service. They often organize classes taught by qualified therapists for people with all levels of mobility. In addition to this, the MS Trust in the UK has a fantastic page which lists 32 exercises - things you can do while standing, sitting or lying down.
3) Something for every phase of MS
Even for people whose MS symptoms have changed and worsened, there are many ways to exercise. For people who have become immobile and are now permanent wheelchair users, workouts to strengthen your arms are quite important. There’s a plethora of videos on YouTube and other channels that can guide and teach you how to do so gently. If you want to add some adrenaline to your workout, why not try wheelchair basketball?
Another excellent way of moving if you have balance issues, is aqua aerobics, or an odd game of soccer in a pool, where your upper arms do all the work while the water carries the rest of your body and weight. Stretching exercises in the pool help your muscles get stronger without having to bend yourself in every way possible. As a child, I spent countless hours in the swimming pool so I’ve seen how water can benefit anyone.
Another favorite of mine is adaptive tai chi. It is indeed a form of martial arts, but one that is quite low-impact but capable of strengthening your balance, core strength and muscles, meaning your flexibility will improve over time.
4) Picking the right gym/place to exercise
By accident, I found out that my local gym, only a ten-minute walk from where I live, in fact also has a separate gym for people with mobility problems. It has equipment that either does the work for you by moving parts of your body, or if you feel stronger one minute but not the next, you actively do the physical work yourself and let the equipment take over again. If joining a gym is holding you back, exercise bicycles are easy to place anywhere in your house, or even garden during summer months.
Are you a resolute gym-hater? Don’t worry, for the world is your playground. There are plenty of outdoor ways to get you active. What about adaptive golf? Or hippotherapy (horse-riding)? Nature trails are becoming more accessible and user-friendly, with national parks creating easier to access for people using walking aids or wheelchairs.
5) Building a routine
This is where it begins to get tough. On days where my body isn’t really interested in cooperating, the gym is a guilt-inducing venue where complacency rules and anxiety over being unable to do twenty spins, reins. Don’t let them. Building a routine will get easier, in fact, to get you in the mood again, allow your body to adjust and start over by going for short walks to get some rhythm back in your bones.
6) Before you begin
Please check with your medical team what type of exercises you should be doing to avoid injury. Also, be aware of sudden fatigue and overheating, as both are strong possibility during your exercise routine.3 It’s also advised that people with MS not to deviate from what they are capable of, so staying within your level of abilities is important, especially when there’s no supervision.
Before you begin any type of exercise, tell yourself to be kind to yourself. Close your eyes and listen to your breath. Put your hands on your belly and feel it rise and fall as you breathe in and out. Our bodies are not built to sit down all day nor are we built to run a marathon like an Olympian athlete, but we need to ensure that it doesn’t become a locked-in cage that forbids you to live in a more mindful, more respectful way. By breathing correctly, you allow oxygen to travel more freely throughout your muscles, helping them to perform in a better way.
Moral of the story: exercise is a vital part of your MS management. If done correctly, you will feel benefits to strengthen not just your physical wellness, but also your state of mind.