Exercise is a great way to keep your body and mind in shape – and when you’re living with Multiple Sclerosis (MS), it can mean the difference between being wheelchair-bound and walking with a limp. It’s that important. There’s no doubt though that for many MS patients the thought of exercise can be daunting or downright terrifying. So let’s think about ways you can get that workout in, feel successful, and reap the benefits of moving your body.
First off, let’s talk about the ways exercise can help you.
In patients with MS, exercise can improve:
- Energy levels
- Sleep quality
- Thinking & memory
It’s Prehab, Not Rehab
I like to call exercise “prehab.” We’re doing work now to prevent more work in the future. Here’s what I mean, let’s day I took you and cloned you. We made two exact copies of you. “Clone A” gets a TV and all the sugary junk food they want. They don’t have to move a muscle for a thing. “Clone B” gets nutrient-dense food, an exercise routine. They move their body and fuel it right. Now let’s say each clone has an attack of left leg weakness. The fallout is noticeable: Clone A is sitting in a wheelchair and Clone B is limping. Why? Prehab – the exercise helped prevent a worse outcome.
I hope this drives home the importance of exercise. But now you might be asking, “what do I do?”.
Find the Fun
Exercise doesn’t have to be a chore. It can be a gratifying part of your day if you find what works best for you. The best form of exercise is one you’ll do. Finding the fun in your exercise means you might need to try a few different types before you land on one you love. Don’t get discouraged. Look at it like you’re dating, searching for the one that will have you asking for a second date.
It can be tempting to push yourself hard when you’re exercising. You want to test your limits. See how far you can go. But I caution against this strategy. I once had a conversation with a patient and his wife that went like this:
Patient: Guess what, doc? I can go to the gym for 3 hours.
Dr. Boster: Wow, that’s impressive!
Wife: *arm smack* And then what happens honey?
Patient: Well, then I spend the next day in bed.
This patient would exercise for 3 hours and then the next day he was useless. Was that helping him? No. We quickly learned that if he went to the gym every day for half an hour, he would never have problems the next day.
Here’s my advice: use the day after exercise to judge whether or not you overdid it. If the next day you can have a normal day, then that was good. If you’re hurting, you may have overdone it.
When you’re living with MS, an overheated body can mean an increase in symptoms. But that’s not a reason to not exercise and break a sweat.
If you know you’re heat-sensitive, keep that in mind when you’re exercising. You can work out in water, since water pulls heat off your body. Or get active early in the morning or later in the evening, when it’s less hot outside. Also be sure to drink plenty of water while you’re exercising and maybe even throw on a cooling vest. These are all ways to make your exercise more meaningful, get more out of it, and not suffer from heat sensitivity.
By now you might be wondering if there is a certain exercise I stand behind. There is! My advice is to use water to your advantage.
Water aerobics, swimming, walking in the water, Water Zumba. I don’t care, as long as you’re moving your body through a body of water. Put a life jacket on, get yourself in the pool and move around.
Exercising in good old H2O has many advantages:
- If you have a weak leg, and it’s hard to pick it up, in the water that leg weighs less.
- If you’re off balance, and you fall to the right, the water breaks your fall.
- If you’re heat-sensitive, the water pulls that heat from your body.
A lot of MS patients can survive, even thrive, and have a great time in the water. For many, that water gives them the opportunity to do activities that they could never attempt on land.
If you’re just not into the mermaid life, think low-impact for on-land activities. Tai Chi, Yoga, Pilates – these are low-impact exercises that can be very beneficial. They can help with core strength, flexibility, and even endurance.
Finally my favorite exercise: take a walk! Grab a loved one or your dog, and head out the door. Take some time after dinner and walk for an hour. And don’t stroll – walk fast enough that you’re raising your heart rate a bit and breaking a little sweat. And don’t forget your water!
Dr. Aaron Boster is a board-certified clinical neuroimmunologist specializing in multiple sclerosis (MS).
Dr. Boster knew he wanted to become an MS specialist since he was 12 years old when his uncle was diagnosed with the disease. This personal connection and experience inspired him to treat MS patients and their families differently. His relentless focus on not just patients, but also their families, means they receive individualized and longitudinal care.
He received his undergraduate degree from Oberlin College in Oberlin, Ohio and his medical degree from the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine in Cincinnati, Ohio. Dr. Boster completed his internship and neurology residency through the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, Michigan. He continued his training at Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan, where he completed a fellowship focused on clinical neuroimmunology and multiple sclerosis.
Dr. Boster is board certified by the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology and is a member of the American Academy of Neurology.
When he is not treating patients, Dr. Boster enjoys spending time with his wife and two children, weightlifting and playing chess. A self-proclaimed “foodie”, he also likes trying new foods.