One of the first things I noticed following my diagnosis of Multiple Sclerosis was that I was having trouble completing my work out routines that I have been doing for years. I was experiencing fatigue, spasms, and even pain due to an exacerbation I was having. I remember one particular evening in the middle of exercising (I was doing step aerobics with a small platform to step on and off of) and I reluctantly had to quit during my session. I felt so angry and discouraged. I wondered to myself how I could possibly resume leading an active life if I had MS. It took some months before I could gain enough confidence to realize that I could continue to exercise and remain active. I simply had to figure out how to adapt to my disease. And for anyone who has MS, you know that this is easier said than done.
Before I proceed to tell you about things which have worked for me with regard to exercise, I want to caution you to seek the advice of your doctor before beginning any exercise routine. My MS is not your MS and we will all have our individual strengths and limitations. Also, the assistance and suggestions from a qualified physical therapist may help in setting up an individualized exercise plan.
Here are some of the lessons I learned during this time of readjustment:
- One of the things I learned over time is how important stretching can be. I had never been much into stretching and only did it minimally. I found that stretching greatly helped to decrease spasticity, stiffness, and pain. If you need to find specific stretches to do, the National MS Society has an illustrated manual you can download which tells you how to stretch with a helper. Stretching will make it easier for you to do other forms of exercise as you will be able to experience more of a range of movement and be more flexible.
- You need to rediscover your body and what you can do within any given time period. The frustrating thing about MS is that symptoms can come and go. One week you might experience feeling off balance. Another week you may have spasticity and stiffness. And yet another week you may feel great fatigue. Listen to your body and your doctor about what things you may be able to do safely. The old adage, "No pain no gain" has no place in your exercise repertoire. You will want to challenge yourself but not at the expense of pain or injury.
- Do things you enjoy doing. I have never enjoyed running for example, and after my diagnosis I felt no inclination to start. You are going to be more motivated to exercise if you find activities you enjoy doing. I like to get outdoors so I have rediscovered my love of biking. I can travel longer distances than by walking or running and even if my balance is affected in my walking, somehow I can still bike. When I am exercising indoors I might watch TV or listen to music during a workout. Do whatever it takes to make the time pleasurable and reinforcing.
- Exercising with a partner is a good idea for multiple reasons. It is more fun and motivating to exercise with someone who can cheer you on. It makes exercise more of a social event. And it is just safer to have someone near you who can be of assistance should you begin experiencing symptoms or have any difficulties. A partner can also help with stretching and spotting you during any weight training activities.
- Don't compare yourself to others or even how you used to be when you exercise. It is easy to feel discouraged when you discover that you may not be as limber, as fast, or have as much stamina as you used to. Recently I went to the gym and went on the treadmill. I attempted to get my heart rate within range of my age according to the directions on the machine. I used to have no problems doing this. But this time I became overheated and began to feel nauseated. I pushed through anyway and I paid for it. As soon as I stepped off the treadmill I began to experience MS symptoms. I had overdone it because I was too proud to admit that I now have to take things a bit more slowly. Remember that your health comes before pride. Don't overdo it.
- Find ways to stay cool during your workout. Exercise in an air conditioned room and/or by a fan. Some people buy cooling apparel or devices to help with this. Here is an article about purchasing items such as a cooling vest to prevent from overheating during your work out. Always have cold water to drink on hand. Another helpful item is to purchase one of those fan/water misters to get a relieving mist of water on your face or neck when you begin to feel hot. One type of exercise where it is more unlikely for you to overheat is swimming at an indoor pool. Just stay out of the sauna area!
- I have found that fluid, steady, controlled movements are much easier for my body to perform than fast paced jerking or bouncing movements which are too hard on my joints and cause me to become overheated. For this reason I like the elliptical machines or stationary bikes the best at the gym. Activities such as swimming, tai chi, and yoga are also good options for those who have MS.
- Exercising a little bit beats doing nothing at all. Every little bit counts. Don't become discouraged if you can't exercise for a lengthy period of time. Just simply making up your mind to do five minutes of exercise is going to boost your confidence. It will also get you in the mindset of developing a routine. Tell yourself that you will try to do a certain minimum and then work your way up from there. Take it slow and do what you are able to do and count it as a success.