David Lyons has made a career out of sharing fitness with the world.
After his multiple sclerosis diagnosis, he decided to take his extensive knowledge about fitness and focus it toward helping those with MS maintain their mobility and independence. He’s created The MS Fitness Challenge, a nonprofit that provides free fitness programs for patients living with MS as well as nationally recognized certifications for trainers who want to teach his specific method for assisting people with MS.
HealthCentral chatted with David, a 2019 inductee into the National Fitness Hall of Fame, to learn more about his background in fitness and his future plans for The MS Fitness Challenge.
HealthCentral (HC): It seems like fitness has been a part of your journey for a long time. How did you get started with fitness and bodybuilding?
David Lyons: As far as I can remember I was either in a boxing ring, a martial arts dojo, or a gym. From a young age I always wanted to be fit, but my first love was fighting so I went down that road until an injury in my early twenties caused me to rethink the hits to the head. I figured that since I was more interested in sports that relied only on my performance for success, bodybuilding was the natural shift.
It was then I walked into a health food store in Queens, N.Y. to understand the nutrition and training involved. That store happened to be owned by the then Mr. America Anibal Lopez. After many hours picking his brain for guidance, he invited me to train at his home garage gym. He was and still is a wealth of knowledge and the time spent with him was priceless. My next stop was going to hardcore bodybuilding gyms where champions trained so I could get perspectives on fitness and bodybuilding from some of the top competitors at the time.
These were champs like Lou Ferrigno, Mr. America Tom Terwilliger, and Mr. USA John DeFendis. Watching and learning from the best enabled me to do all I could to be my best. Naturally, for me as an entrepreneurial person, this all led me into the fitness, nutrition, and gym business. And, by the way, I am still friends with all these guys who helped me get to where I am today.
HC: How did your diagnosis of MS impact your bodybuilding career?
David: Since I was in the business of bodybuilding and not the competitive side, MS did not derail any competitive hopes, but what MS did was make bodybuilding, as my day-to-day life, very difficult … at first! I had to adjust everything I did in the gym to work around my limitations until those limitations were no longer dictating my training. MS caused many injuries as I pushed past limits and had to learn when I was going too far. That was a huge learning curve for me because I am naturally very strong and like to lift heavy weights instead of doing lots of reps.
Once I understood just how far I could drive myself without injury, I was able to train as if I was getting ready to compete, which I did in 2009. I made my point, showed the world that MS cannot stop me as a bodybuilder, and turned a negative into a positive impact. Now, instead of focusing on me and competing with MS, my bodybuilding career is now focused on how I can help others with MS conquer this disease through the MS Fitness Challenge charity and our new Every Rep is a Step program with Shanna Ferrigno (Lou's daughter).
HC: Why do you think so many MS patients struggle with fitness?
David: MS comes with a variety of symptoms and causes many MS-ers to be limited in movement with pain as a side effect. We are also told, in most cases, to take it easy and limit our activities so we do not have exacerbations. When you add this all up it becomes an uphill battle to get a MS patient to engage in a fitness program. We get in our heads and start believing that fitness is a thing of the past for us. I struggled with this myself the first year after my diagnosis. Being told I would end up in a wheelchair shortly, feeling the symptoms and hearing the negativity — it was a recipe for defeat. All MS-ers have this same challenge. But people with MS need to understand that with the CORRECT fitness program like the one I have created, fitness can and will be part of the MS lifestyle. It all starts with mindset and once that is in place, any realistic goal is attainable.
HC: How do you personally manage your MS?
David: I practice what I preach and first start every day telling myself I will use MS to my benefit and to the benefit of others. I do not allow MS to control my feelings or to limit my goals. Next, I eat correctly with an anti-inflammatory diet by following Dr. Terry Wahls who is supportive of my fitness program and stick to her Wahls Protocol modified to fit my needs. Adaptation is important with MS and each one of us is an individual with our own specific symptoms and solutions. And last, I am a gym rat and spend six days a week showing the weights that I am stronger than they are!
HC: How can MS patients get involved with MS Fitness Challenge?
David: The MS Fitness Challenge offers several programs to help MS-ers live a lifestyle of fitness. You can find out all about what we have been doing in the MS community since 2012. We also have a Facebook Group called MS Fitness Challenge GYM that offers our free Every Rep is a Step program with mindset, exercise and nutrition advice, education and training. And of course, we always can use help in the fundraising aspect since we are a nonprofit charity that provides ongoing fitness programs free of cost to MS-ers worldwide.