Exercise Options for Multiple Sclerosis Patients

Even with symptoms that present physical challenges, people with multiple sclerosis (MS) can enjoy a wide variety of activities. You don’t have to be a great athlete to get physical. Here are some that you may want to try:

  • Water activities in a cool pool: These are ideal if your MS is heat-sensitive. Most people do well in water that’s no warmer than 80 to 84 degrees. The buoyancy of the water makes swimming and water aerobics safe and comfortable even if you have weakness or balance problems. The National MS Society can give you information about MS aquatics programs in your area.

  • Aerobic exercise: Aerobic exercise is any activity that raises your pulse and respiration rates. Running or walking outside or on a treadmill, cycling outside or on a stationary bike, and rowing are the activities that people generally think of as aerobic exercise. But you can actually raise your heart rate by simply sitting in a chair and doing windmills with your arms.

    You only need to do 15 minutes a day to get the aerobic benefits, and research has shown that you can get the same benefits even if you divide the time into three five-minute periods over the course of the day.

  • Yoga: This is an excellent, noncompetitive form of exercise that combines healthy breathing techniques with movements that improve flexibility and balance. Yoga is also a wonderful stress-reliever. Many chapters of the National MS Society offer yoga programs that are geared toward your abilities and limitations, so call (800) FIGHT-MS to find out about programs in your area.

    Check out Yoga For Dummies, 2nd edition, by Georg Feuerstein and Larry Payne (John Wiley & Sons, Inc.) and Yoga and Multiple Sclerosis: A Journey to Health and Healing by Loren Fishman and Eric Small (Demos Health) for more information.

  • T’ai Chi: This gentle martial art made up of slow-motion movements can maintain or improve balance, flexibility, and strength. Like yoga, t’ai chi is an excellent activity for reducing feelings of stress.

    Grab a copy of T’ai Chi For Dummies by Therese Iknoian (John Wiley & Sons, Inc.) for more details.) And call the National MS Society (800 FIGHT-MS or 800-344-4867 for information about t’ai chi programs for people with MS in your area.

  • Stretching exercises: These types of exercises are important for maintaining comfort and flexibility, particularly if you’re experiencing spasticity. Stretching helps you loosen up tight muscles and maintain full range of motion in your joints.

    Take a look at the brochures Stretching for People with MS and Stretching with a Helper for People with MS. You can also request hard copies of these brochures by calling (800) FIGHT-MS.

  • Weight-training with free weights or exercise machines: This can help you tone your muscles and increase your flexibility and endurance. Remember, however, that lifting weights can’t strengthen muscles that have been weakened by poor nerve conduction. After the nerves that stimulate the muscles have been damaged by MS, those muscles aren’t likely to become stronger with exercise.

    Weight-training will, however, help to strengthen the surrounding muscles that you use to compensate for those that are no longer working up to snuff.

  • Therapeutic horseback riding: This activity promotes balance and strength (just think of all the effort it takes to keep yourself upright on the back of a moving horse!), and it’s great for stretching out leg muscles tightened by spasticity.

Clearly, you have a lot of options. But be sure to talk to your neurologist or physical therapist before starting any new exercise program, just to make sure that you’re opting for an activity that’s appropriate and safe given whatever your current symptoms are. And check in with your primary care physician to make sure no other health issues may influence the type and intensity of exercise that’s best for you.

Experiment with various activities until you find one that’s right for you. Remember that the best exercise program is one that you enjoy enough to do on a regular basis.

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