If you have multiple sclerosis (MS), you’ve likely already heard that exercise is good for you. (It’s good for everybody!) What you may not know is just how many unique benefits of exercise that researchers studying the disease have identified, and that people with MS have discovered for themselves.
Of course, it can be challenging to engage in exercise if your MS has progressed from relapsing-remitting to secondary or primary progressive. Weakness, muscle stiffness, numbness in your feet and other parts of the body, pain, and other symptoms often feel like serious barriers to exercise.
But while starting a simple exercise routine is difficult, there’s potential for some huge payoffs.* Exercise doesn’t just have the same benefits for you as it does for everyone; it can actually work against your symptoms and significantly improve your quality of life.
1. Strength training helps maintain mobility.
The biggest problem with avoiding exercise is the inevitable physical deconditioning that occurs. Being less active than you are able to be can actually contribute to increased weakness and fatigue and promote immobility.
On the flip side, even a moderate amount of exercise can contribute to maintaining your ability to stand upright, walk, and live life with independence.
According to the Cleveland Clinic Neurological Institute, “There is a growing body of evidence suggesting that exercise decreases the severity of various MS symptoms, including fatigue and depressive symptoms, improves walking and balance, and enhances the quality of life.”
2. Stretching exercises help with muscle stiffness and spasticity.
The idea of engaging and stretching muscles that are already stiff or sore is probably not very appealing. But as MS sufferers like Dan Melfi explain, pushing through that initial discomfort (carefully, of course) can have amazing benefits.
“When I do yoga, even though it’s so hard for me in the first three or four minutes to do anything, after 15 or 20 it’s like wow, I feel so much better,” he said.
Yoga, tai chi, and other stretching routines can be highly effective in reducing painful muscle stiffness and spasms. They also help you maintain a full range of motion, which contributes to overall mobility.
Low-impact routines like these, as well as water exercises and simply walking, are recommended for all MS sufferers who are able, including those with primary progressive MS.
3. Aerobic exercise improves mental health, which is linked to reducing fatigue.
One of the most powerful effects of moderate aerobic exercise like walking or swimming is its effect on mood. And because there is a strong, undeniable connection between mental and physical health, boosting your mood will give you an energy boost as well.
Since her MS diagnosis in 1998, Negar Niazi has found aerobic water exercise to be more energizing than tiring. She experiences fatigue like everyone else with MS, but she has found this to be a great way to work against it.
“Not only is exercise good for my body and feels amazing, it’s good for my soul, for my spirit. It keeps my energy on the positive side,” she said.
4. Exercise can improve bowel and bladder control.
In addition to medication that you may be taking for incontinence and constipation, there are many exercises you can do to improve bowel and bladder function.
Deep-belly breathing exercises deep, core muscles that interact with the bladder. This can be especially effective when combined with a pelvic tilt (lying on your back and gently tilting your pelvis up) or bridge, if you’re able (lifting your back off the floor).
According to Dr. Tamara Bockow Kaplan, a neurologist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, this type of exercise strengthens muscle groups that can reduce incidents of incontinence. You may want or need to work with a physical therapist to do this safely.
5. Physical and cognitive benefits of exercise help reduce your risk of falling.
There is little doubt that improving muscle strength, flexibility and mental health results in maintaining strong cognitive functioning and coordination. For people with MS, these benefits are especially important because they help reduce the risk of falls.
According to the Cleveland Clinic Neurological Institute, there are many ways to reduce fall risk, including modifying your environment (e.g. keeping it clear of clutter), using an appropriate mobility aid, reviewing medications, etc.
They especially stress education – learning about fall prevention, as you’re doing right now – and, “Exercise, including aerobic exercise, strengthening (including core strengthening),” citing research that demonstrates exercise resulting in a significant reduction in the incidence of falls.
6. Any amount of exercise is useful, no matter your ability level.
Advice from the medical community on this topic today is very different from what you may have heard back in the 1980s or earlier.
At that time, MS patients were told to err on the side of conserving energy and not overtaxing the body. It was feared exercise could make things worse.
Now, the benefits of exercise are undeniable. And the best news is that for all the reasons above, it’s worthwhile no matter your level of ability, even if it’s not as rigorous as what might be recommended for people your age who don’t have a neurological disease.
Tips for Exercising Safely with MS
Choose safe activities.
There is no reason to take on exercises that put you at risk of serious injury. If your only idea of what “exercise” means is running, playing impact sports, doing gymnastics or other high-intensity activities, you’ll need to expand your definition.
It might be useful to set aside the word “exercise” altogether and focus instead on “physical activity.” This could be anything you want or need to do throughout the day that gets you up and moving:
- Walking with friends or family
- Walking the dog
- Doing chores
- Going shopping
- Playing with kids in a pool
True, there are great benefits to more formal “exercises” like core workouts, lower and upper body strength building, etc. But if those activities are beyond your ability to do safely, that’s fine. Anything that gets you up and moving without risk of fall, injury, or overexertion is good.
Modify as needed.
According to Dr. Iris Marin Collazo, M.D., you don’t want to be too aggressive. It’s common to get overheated or experience blurred vision at first. The solution to this isn’t to just keep going, it’s modification. And it’s never a bad idea to get help with this.
“A physical therapist or fitness instructor familiar with MS can help create a routine that fits your capabilities and addresses issues such as body temperature, poor balance, fatigue and spasticity … Anyone with MS can modify an exercise routine to meet his or her needs. Just remember to work within your range of ability and not to overdo it.”
Use a fall-safe mobility aid.
For several reasons, the LifeGlider has been very useful for people with MS who want to get more active.
- It has a sturdy base of support that won’t tip over when you lose your balance.
- The belt secures you at the waist and catches you when you stumble.
- Its seat allows you to rest when you get fatigued without having to get out.
The LifeGlider allows you to engage in a wide range of physical activities safely. If you have the ability to stand and step into it, you can enjoy the benefits of exercise without having to worry about falling and getting hurt.
Learn More About the LifeGlider
If you have multiple sclerosis and want to learn more about whether the LifeGlider is a good fit for your desired lifestyle and health goals, we’d love to hear from you.
*Always talk to your doctor before starting any exercise regimen.