Improve Your MS and Overall Wellness with Exercise

Even though it wasn’t all that long ago that people with MS were told not to exercise, things have changed. Here’s the basic message: Exercise is good for you. Physical activity geared to your abilities and limitations provides many benefits, including

  • Reducing your fatigue (difficult to believe but absolutely true)

  • Maintaining and increasing your endurance and the flexibility of your joints and muscles

  • Improving your cardiovascular health

  • Improving bowel and bladder functions

  • Strengthening your bones

  • Improving your mood

  • Helping with weight management

In spite of all the good reasons to get out there and move around, people with MS often find it challenging. Here are the most common hurdles and some strategies for getting over them:

  • “I’m too tired to even think about exercise.” Exercising to increase your energy level doesn’t sound logical, but it works because it improves cardiovascular function and tones your muscles. The trick is to start small and build up gradually.

    Pick a time of day when your energy is pretty good and do something physical, even if it’s only a little — swim a half a lap, walk to the next driveway and back, spend one minute on the treadmill, or make one trip up the stairs.

    Set your goals within reach so that every step is a victory, and don’t raise the bar until you’re comfortable. If it takes a few days or a week or even longer to go to the next level, so be it. Allowing yourself to do things differently — or at a different pace — than you used to is your key to success. Your physical therapist (PT) can help you design an exercise regimen that’s just right for you.

  • “I hated exercising before I had MS and I don’t like it any better now.” Okay, so you don’t enjoy jogging, swimming, aerobics, or anything else that makes you think of sweat. But keep in mind that physical activity doesn’t have to be competitive, and you don’t have to go to the gym.

    Instead, you can work in your garden, walk in the mall, join a yoga class or t’ai chi class, or take a walk with your best friend. If you love to watch movies, set up a TV in front of your treadmill or recumbent bicycle. Chances are that you’ll add a few more minutes to your routine just to see what happens in the next scene.

  • “The competition was what I loved, and if I can’t do it competitively, I don’t want to do it at all.” All you competitive folks out there probably have the toughest challenge of all. When being the best or the fastest or the toughest isn’t possible, you need to redefine your goals.

    Perhaps you can level the playing field a bit by getting into adaptive sports of some kind — adaptive skiing, wheelchair basketball, or disability-friendly ropes courses (the National MS Society can fill you in on opportunities in your area). Or, maybe you can decide to compete with yourself rather than with others — by challenging yourself to swim one more lap or speed up your walk around the block.

    You may need to experiment with a few different activities to find something that satisfies your competitive urges. And believe it or not, you may even find yourself enjoying noncompetitive activities that you never took the time to try before.

  • “If I can’t do it as well as I did before, I’m not interested.” It is important to grieve over the old stuff so you can get on with the new — and this is a case in point. If you pride yourself on your fabulous tennis serve or glorious golf swing, and MS suddenly gets in the way, you’re going to have to grieve over that loss before you can start thinking about what’s next.

    After you get your head around the idea of doing your sport differently or less gracefully, you may find that there’s still a lot to enjoy about it — the essence of the game, the companionship, or the time spent out-of-doors.

    If you become unable to pursue the sport at all, it will take you a while to find satisfying substitutes. You’ll probably have to try a few different things before you find something you like, but the chances are great that you’ll find something to enjoy.

  • “It takes me so much longer to do stuff that I never have time to exercise anymore.” Time is one of your most valuable resources, especially when you have MS. So, the more demands you have on your time and the longer it takes you to do the things that are important to you, the more important it is to think through your priorities.

    If physical activity improves your mood and helps you feel more mobile and energetic, you may want to put it pretty high on your priority list.

    You don’t need to carve out a lot of time, either — just 15 to 20 minutes a day will do the trick (and you don’t even have to do it all at once!). Choose an activity that’s close by and convenient so you don’t have to spend a lot of extra time getting there and back.

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