Living with multiple sclerosis (MS) can be a bumpy road with lots of twists and turns, and detours galore. Rarely does it provide a straight line from point A to point B. But sometimes those detours can take you back to places that you thought were long gone and forgotten.
Studies indicate that physical activity is good for MS. It can reduce fatigue, improve cognition, and help you maintain strength and flexibility. I’ve discovered firsthand how physical activity can transform your body and mind over time.
In the fall of 2014, I was suffering from excruciating pain from osteoarthritis of the knees. My left knee hurt so much that walking was difficult, staying still was painful, and sleep was anything but restful. The pain was so bad at night that I couldn’t sleep unless my knee was propped up with pillows positioned just so while I tried to rest in my recliner chair.
My orthopedic doctor prescribed a series of knee injections to help lubricate the joint after an MRI confirmed considerable cartilage loss. Eventually I will need knee replacement surgery. He also suggested I ride an exercise bike for rehabilitation.
At first, I was shocked and dismayed. On the bike, I couldn’t ride for even two or three minutes without my legs feeling numb and spastic due to MS. So I decided to back off my efforts and count revolutions instead of minutes with 300 spins as my short-term goal (150 for each leg). If I cycled for 300 rotations at a steady, slow pace, it would equal about five minutes.
That was the beginning of my long transformation from couch potato to outdoor cyclist. During that first year, I slowly transitioned from counting revolutions to counting minutes to counting miles. I also started counting calories too. After a year, I lost 50 pounds and could ride for 45 minutes on the exercise bike and still feel good afterward.
I started to dream of riding a real bike again. But I hadn’t done so since college, and I didn’t have a bike. Many months later, I went shopping. The image of me trying out bikes when I hadn’t even been on one in many years was funny. I eventually chose one and began riding it short distances. Just like with the exercise bike, I started with small goals: down the street and back, one mile, two miles, 15 minutes, 30 minutes, and more.
I purchased my bike in May 2016 and since then have ridden for over 500 miles. It has been exciting, but not without lots of sore and fatigued muscles, and a few falls. My spasticity doesn’t kick in as quickly now, and my balance has improved. Stretching carefully and using my vision to stay connected with the ground while in motion have been important.
Here are a few things I’ve learned that help me stay motivated:
- Find a partner. Although I am a very independent person, I found that going out and riding my bike was much more fun with a partner. My husband enjoyed showing me local trails I had never been on before. When I became more comfortable, we ventured farther from home to explore new territory. Eventually I gained enough confidence to go out on my own while he was at work.
- Keep records. I found that if I documented my activities, I was more motivated to put on the biking clothes, air up my tires, and go out for a short or long ride. At first I used a Fitbit connected to my sock to trace and measure my route. Then a friend suggested MapMyRide, which is an app that uses your phone’s GPS to track your activity. Later another friend suggested Strava, which does much the same. After each ride, I input my stats into a spreadsheet to document my progress.
- Allow days off. Accompanying my independent nature is a competitive streak; when I start a project, I tend to jump in head first. I wanted to ride as much as my body would let me, but I quickly learned that I needed time off to allow my muscles to recuperate. It takes patience to learn that rest is as important as, if not more than, staying physically active.
- Treat yourself. One thing my husband is good at is enjoying a good treat. Last summer, we stopped at a local frozen yogurt shop several times to share a small bowl. The treat and the built-in rest time were enough to make the rest of the trip home short and sweet.
- Hydration is vital. Water is essential for life as up to 60 percent of the body is made up of water. Adult humans need about 3 liters of water per day, depending upon age, gender, environment, and activity. The more activity you engage in, the greater your hydration needs may be. In general, it is important to drink about 20-24 ounces of water per hour of cycling. I’ve found that if I’m dehydrated before beginning a ride, I get severely nauseous and do not perform as well.
These observations are not prescribed suggestions of how to transform yourself into an outdoor athlete, they are simply things that I experienced during this first year of cycling. None of this happened quickly. It took baby steps, tiny goal increases, and a lot of sweat and patience to build up to where I am now.
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Lisa Emrich is a patient advocate, accomplished speaker, author of the award-winning blog Brass and Ivory: Life with MS and RA, and founder of the Carnival of MS Bloggers. Lisa uses her experience to educate patients, raise disease awareness, encourage self-advocacy, and support patient-centered research. Lisa frequently works with non-profit organizations and has brought the patient voice to healthcare conferences and meetings worldwide. Follow Lisa on Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest.