Why you need to exercise:
Maintaining a regular exercise program is one of the smartest things you can do for your MS. It can help keep your weight down, increase your strength, and boost your energy. No matter what stage your multiple sclerosis (MS) is in, you can benefit from exercise. Many studies have shown that even people with advanced MS can reap the benefits of physical activity. Regular exercise can help improve:
- Heart health
- Physical strength
- Bladder and bowel function
- Feelings of fatigue and depression
- Overall attitude
- Participation in social activities
Inactivity in people with or without MS can result in numerous risk factors associated with coronary heart disease. In addition, it can lead to weakness of muscles, decreased bone density with an increased risk of fracture, and shallow, inefficient breathing.
When you have multiple sclerosis, exercise doesn’t have to be something intense or lengthy. No studies have shown that exercise leads to an increase in disease activity or an MS relapse. Many more benefits than detriments to an exercise program have been found.
A study published by researchers at the University of Utah in 1996 was the first to demonstrate clearly the benefits of exercise for people with MS. Since 1996, several additional studies have confirmed the benefits of exercise. One such demonstrates the improved brain function: “We found that aerobic fitness has a protective effect on parts of the brain that are most affected by multiple sclerosis,” said Ruchika Shaurya Prakash, lead author of the study and assistant professor of psychology at Ohio State University. “Physically fit MS patients had fewer lesions compared to those who weren’t as fit and the lesions they did have tended to be smaller,” Prakash said. Aerobic fitness was also associated with less-damaged brain tissue in MS patients, both the gray matter and white matter.
What you have to be cautious of with exercise:
Heat sensitivity (or increased core body temperature) increases MS symptoms for about 8 out of 10 people. You may experience numbness, tingling, or blurred vision. These symptoms may not be a sign of a relapse. They may be temporary and go away once you cool down. They may limit the duration of exercise, but should not deter you from a regular exercise routine.
Become aware of your body. If you notice any symptoms that you didn’t have before you began exercising, slow down or stop exercising until you cool down. To overcome heat sensitivity, many people living with MS cool their bodies before exercise (“precooling”) or during exercise by submerging themselves in cold water, taking a cold shower, using ice packs, or drinking cold drinks.
It is important to start your program slowly, and monitor your body. Take frequent rest breaks. See how you feel the day after your workout; if you feel increased pain and/or fatigue, you may have done too much. Scale back for your next workout. Allow yourself enough recovery time. And don’t increase your frequency or intensity until your fitness level has plateaued with your current workout routine. And then ramp up slowly – either with increasing time between workouts, or with increasing resistance with an additional ½ pound.
Due to the weakness and/or impaired sensation, balance can be decreased. It is important to exercise safely to limit your risk of falls. Even if you are able to walk, you may choose to workout seated to be able to exercise more intensely, safely.
It is important to monitor your blood pressure and heart rate with exercise. Also, know what medications you take and how they may impact your exercise performance.
Watch your skin! If you can’t feel an area, always be cautious you aren’t injuring it.
Remember to consult your physician before starting an exercise program.
- Motl et al. JNPT 2012;36: 32–37
- Parminder K. Padgett and Susan L. Kasser. Exercise and the Management of Symptoms of Multiple Sclerosis. PHYS THER. 2013; 93:723-728.