Inspirational MS Stories featured in SwimForMS campaign, sponsored by MSAA and Genzyme

  • Staying active and engaging in regular exercise are important activities that promote healthy living, especially for persons who are faced with physically challenging diseases such as multiple sclerosis or rheumatoid arthritis.  The benefits of exercise extend beyond the physical into the mental and emotional health of the individual.  Although, finding your favorite form of exercise may take some experimentation.

    One form of exercise which has been my personal favorite over the years is swimming.  I find the feel of the water gently flowing over my shoulders to be calming.  The water swirling around my ears helps to block out external sounds and gives me an opportunity to reflect inward.  Swimming laps at the local recreation center offers a perfect time for meditation while working the cardiovascular system and large muscle groups.

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    In honor of MS Awareness Month, the Multiple Sclerosis Association of America (MSAA) and Sanofi-Genzyme (makers of the MS drug Aubagio) joined forces to create which includes resources to promote water exercise and features three inspiring stories from members of the MS community who describe how swimming has helped manage their MS symptoms and improve their overall well-being.  I was fortunate to speak with two of the individuals featured as part of the Why I Swim campaign.

    Mary Sypawka, diagnosed with RRMS more than 20 years ago, discovered her passion for water aerobics after retiring early and making herself a priority.  Mary suffered from severe fatigue and found traveling had become difficult.  Not previously a swimmer, Mary began in the pool with water walking and later moved into aerobics.  She says simply that it “helps me feel better and I enjoy meeting people.”  

    Mary, who began disease-modifying therapy as soon as it was available to her many years ago, believes that staying active has helped her to maintain mobility and limit disease progression.  She is passionate about encouraging others to try the water.  “The hardest part is getting in the pool at first, but once you try it and discover how good it feels, you will probably stick with it.”

    Mandy Iris Vercoe’s journey with MS began with a twitch in her left eye.  While training for a triathlon, she began having trouble running and cycling due to heat sensitivity but found swimming to be “invigorating.”  Only months after her diagnosis, Mandy lost her mother to cancer.  She then discovered that being in the pool allowed her “to grieve more appropriately.”  

    Mandy joined the Why I Swim campaign specifically to reach out to the newly diagnosed.  She remembers searching the internet and reading all the scary things about MS and facing the “what-if’s”.  Mandy shares her story to let others know “how much better it made me feel and to give hope to people with MS.”  Mandy believes that “just getting in the water at first” is important, but so is working with a health provider to get started.

  • Swimming and other forms of water-based exercise have well-established health benefits for many fitness levels. The cooling and buoyant properties of water can create an ideal exercise environment, allowing for movements that may not be possible on land, while keeping people with MS from overheating which can trigger MS symptoms. Benefits of water-based exercise for people with MS include improved flexibility, muscle strength, and mobility function, reduced risk of cardiovascular disease, and enhanced psychological well-being and overall quality of life.

    Noodles, buoyancy belts, flippers, and gloves are not just toys in the pool - although they can be fun - they are important pieces of equipment that give support or additional drag in the water to assistance persons with MS with different needs, says Monique Acton from the Aquatic Exercise Association (AEA).  Monique also says that the environment of the water can affect one’s choice in how they approach the pool. For instance, if the water is on the cool side, you may want to stretch before entering the pool as cold water could initially make your body tense up.  If the water is warm, you might choose to enter the pool and move around a bit as you allow the warmth of the water to help make your muscles more pliable before stretching.  There is no one-size-fits-all approach to aquatics.

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    According to the downloadable Aquatic Exercise & Multiple Sclerosis: A Healthcare Professional’s Guide, there is currently no definitive research regarding optimum water temperature for an MS exercise program.  Currently, the general recommendation is for water temperature to be 86 F (30 C) or below. The National Multiple Sclerosis Society recommends a water temperature of 80 – 84 degrees F (26.7 – 28.9 C) to help keep the core body temperature low during exercise, and reduce the risk for overheating.

    Designed specifically for the MS community, the new online Aquatic Center at was developed with help from experts in the field of aquatic exercise, rehabilitation therapy and MS.  A variety of print, video, and web-based materials are available to help people living with MS and their care partners learn more and get started on a swim or aquatic exercise routine of their own, including:
    ·         Aquatic Exercise & Multiple Sclerosis: A Guide for Patients
    ·         Aquatic Exercise & Multiple Sclerosis: A Healthcare Professional’s Guide
    ·         Aquatic Exercise & MS Tip Sheet
    ·         Webinar: Discovering Aquatic Exercise and MS
    ·         Why I Swim Video Testimonials

    I downloaded both the guide aimed at patients and the one written for healthcare professionals.  The “professional” guide includes several examples of exercises that can be conducted in the pool and their benefits.  A water-proof exercise guide for patients that can be used poolside is in the works and should be available soon. Also, a comprehensive nationwide listing of aquatics facilities will soon be included along the resources available at  

  • Swim for MS is also a national fundraiser in which volunteers create and arrange their own swim challenge, recruit participants, and encourage online donations to benefit MSAA.  Learn more at

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    Lisa Emrich is author of the blog Brass and Ivory: Life with MS and RA and founder of the Carnival of MS Bloggers.


Published On: March 18, 2014