Six Ways Exercise Helps People With MS
Exercise can help to combat some MS symptoms by improving endurance and stamina, strength and flexibility, pulmonary function, fatigue, cognitive function and psychological health. First seek advice from a physical therapist or trainer experienced in working with persons with MS. Then start slow, be patient with yourself, rest before you feel you need to, invite a friend along, and let instructors know that you have MS and may need to adapt routines accordingly.
Aerobic exercise, such as walking, swimming or cycling, is important for cardiovascular health. Aerobic exercise includes low-intensity workouts which help to increase endurance and stamina. The American Heart Association recommends 30 minutes of cardiovascular exercise five to seven days per week.
Aerobic exercise can improve memory in persons with MS, according to a recent Kessler Foundation study. In this research, aerobic exercise resulted in increased brain volume and verbal and non-verbal memory in a 44-year-old memory-impaired patient living with MS. Non-memory cognitive functions (such as executive functions or working memory) were not affected.
Resistance-based training helps to build muscle and strengthen bones. As people with MS become less active, their bodies may become deconditioned, leading to loss of muscle mass and increased muscle fatigue. Research shows that heat-sensitive patients have better tolerance for resistance exercises, as strength training does not tend to increase body temperature.
Gentle stretching exercises, including yoga, help to reduce muscle tightness, increase flexibility, improve strength and reduce stress. Yoga can help to temporarily lengthen muscles which may become shortened due to chronic spasticity. The twisting and forward bending motions common in yoga can also aid digestion and help to reduce constipation.
Breathing exercises can help to maximize lung volume, reduce stress and protect against pulmonary function decline. A Canadian research study in MS patients with pulmonary function abnormalities showed that larger lung capacity helps to improve peak cough flow in patients with neuromuscular disease. People who have difficulty clearing their airway are at risk of pneumonia and respiratory tract infections.
Few studies evaluate the lasting effects of exercise interventions. One Irish study, however, found that physical improvements gained during a 12-week community exercise program were not maintained three months after the program ended. However, significant improvements in reducing fatigue and psychological aspects of MS continued at follow-up.
When living with MS, it is important to learn effective ways to reduce and manage stress. Results from a 24-week study showed that active stress management therapy (SMT), including cognitive behavioral therapy, prevented new MS lesions; however, SMT did not affect clinical outcomes in the MS patients studied.
Most importantly, choose something you enjoy. Exercise only helps if you continue to do it regularly. Stay as active as possible for as long as possible. And don’t forget to exercise your brain. Reading, writing, puzzles and games are fun ways to give your cognitive abilities a workout. While you’re at it, practice smiling which is a good exercise for any of us.