Competitive bodybuilding is one way that David Lyons conquers multiple sclerosis (MS). Diagnosed with MS in 2006, David is motivated to educate and inspire people living with the disease to focus on fitness and nutrition and to develop a mindset that anything is possible.
In 2012, with his wife Kendra Lyons, R.N., David founded the MS Fitness Challenge (MSFC) charity to help bring his message worldwide. David has received the Milestone Award from the National MS Society, and in 2015, he was presented the Health Advocate Lifetime Achievement Award by Arnold Schwarzenegger.
He’s also the author of “David’s Goliath: Winning the Battle Against All Odds” (2013) and “Everyday Health and Fitness with Multiple Sclerosis: Achieve Your Physical Wellness While Working with Limited Mobility” (2017). He’s working on a new show called “Pumped: The Muscle Hustle” with Lou Ferrigno.
He spoke with HealthCentral about his experience.
HealthCentral (HC): What were the initial symptoms that led to your diagnosis?
David Lyons: MS caught me off guard in the gym. Initially I experienced severe pain, numbness, tingling, and lack of coordination in my left arm while working out. Within a few weeks, the symptoms radiated throughout my body and moved into my legs. I became bedridden for months during the pre-diagnosis and diagnosis stage. When I was finally hospitalized, I was almost paralyzed from the chest down.
HC: What did you most fear when you learned of your diagnosis?
David: After a five-day stay in the hospital, the symptoms were still so severe that I felt I could not continue as a bodybuilder, or might not step foot in a gym again. The neurologists said that MS would quickly make me wheelchair bound due to the tremendous nerve damage I experienced during that initial attack. I began to fear that would become my reality. Twelve years later and almost 60 years old, I’m still not using a wheelchair.
HC: What has been your greatest challenge and how have you sought to overcome it?
David: Dealing with the inconsistencies of MS, with the changing severity and types of symptoms, has been my greatest challenge. You never know what you are waking up to with MS. I am big on control and discipline. With MS, you can feel out of control of what it can and will do to your body. As an athlete my whole life, I always stayed on a healthy eating regimen. But with MS, I had to take that discipline to another level and eliminate foods that I previously thought were healthy because of the inflammatory response they caused. I face the inconsistencies of MS by doing what I can to stay as much in control of it through exercise, nutrition, and a determined mindset — what I call the three keys to overall fitness.
HC: What inspired you to become an advocate for people living with multiple sclerosis?
David: When I stood on stage and competed as a bodybuilder with MS, I felt empowered. I knew I had the strength, through my faith in God, to be able to conquer this disease. But I never looked at myself as an advocate until (my wife) Kendra pointed out how I was impacting the people who were standing and cheering me on.
HC: Which advocacy organizations are you involved in?
David: Although I spend most of my days as the driving force behind our charity, I do take time to connect with other MS organizations that are doing great work. I work with Wrestling MS — a cycling group for MSers — as their senior exercise coach. I have worked with the Multiple Sclerosis Foundation in support of my 12-week fitness challenges and I’ve partnered with MS Views & News to present information about fitness at their events. And I’ve recently joined up with iConquerMS.org.
HC: Please tell us more about the MS Fitness Challenge. How can people get involved?
David: The MS Fitness Challenge has grown tremendously since we founded it almost 6 years ago. It is now a worldwide organization that reaches countries as far away as Australia. We provide free online personal exercise programs for people living with MS, with additional support through our MS Fitness Challenge GYM Facebook group. Our charity sponsors 12-week fitness challenges nationwide that provide access to specialized MS trainers. We also educate fitness professionals about MS through our MS course, conference presentations, and speaking engagements.
HC: If people don’t have access to a trainer in their local area, are there other ways they can benefit from the program?
David: Yes! Anyone with MS can get involved with the online programs from the comfort of their home. Whether they want to jump into the free 8-week personalized routine or subscribe to MSWorkouts.com, they do not need to have local access to a trainer. If they are a member of a gym, they might want to use “Everyday Health and Fitness With Multiple Sclerosis” as a guidebook. The book provides access to my OptimalBody HD Training Program as well as nutritional guidance and mindset advice. There is no reason anyone with MS should not participate in some form of exercise and nutrition protocol whether there are MS fitness professionals near them or not.
HC: How has time and experience changed your views on the future and living with MS?
David: Considering my first year or two with MS were filled with uncertainty, depression, and negative input, it is remarkable how all that has changed into a solid path of positive momentum. After my original feeling of shock and disbelief that I could have MS, and the emotional battle that goes along with it, my road became paved with the strength and determination to overcome the odds.
My future, and your future with MS if you choose to set goals and follow through, is no different than those without MS. We just have a few symptoms, setbacks, and challenges that they don’t.
HC: What is one piece of advice you often share with others living with MS?
David: You cannot let your thoughts take you down the wrong path with MS. You cannot look at what you can’t do if you want to beat this disease. You have to look at what you can do. From there anything is possible, even standing on a competitive bodybuilding stage!
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