11 Exercises for Managing MS

Even when you have a condition that interferes with your movement, exercise can still help you feel better. That's true for relapsing-remitting multiple sclerosis (RRMS), too. It can help you maintain some mobility, manage the fatigue that goes hand-in-hand with MS, and just feel stronger, says clinical exercise physiologist Carol Ewing Garber, Ph.D., professor of movement sciences at Teachers College, Columbia University in New York City. “Those are the direct benefits,” she says. “But also just in terms of overall general health, exercise, even small amounts, can be really helpful.”

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Getting Started

The following 11 moves are designed to be performed in a sturdy chair, says Garber. “You can spread them out over the course of the day, doing more on days you feel better, and less when you’re feeling tired,” she says. While these exercises are generally safe for people with MS, it’s important to not work so hard that you get overheated, which can make your symptoms worse. Remember to stay hydrated and either skip exercise on hot days or move to an air-conditioned space. And if you experience pain during exercise or severe muscle soreness afterward, discontinue the exercises and talk with your doctor.

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1. Neck Stretches

Begin sitting up as straight as possible with your feet planted firmly and flat on the floor. Look straight ahead and rest your arms comfortably. Take a few slow deep breaths, breathing in and exhaling fully. Then, gently move your head slowly to the right, left, forward, and back.

Hold each position for a count of three to five seconds, or as tolerated. Move to each position slowly and only to a point that is comfortable with little tension in your neck. If you feel dizzy or lightheaded, try closing your eyes and moving more slowly.

Repeat five to six times.

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2. Shoulder Shrugs

This may seem like a super basic move, but shoulder shrugs can help strengthen the muscles that stabilize your neck and upper back, helping you maintain healthy posture.

Begin sitting up as straight as possible with your arms relaxed by your sides. Take a deep breath in as you raise your shoulders up to your ears. Exhale fully as you lower your shoulders back down to a neutral position. Repeat five to six times.

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3. Shoulder Rolls

Begin sitting up as straight as possible with your arms relaxed by your sides. Take a deep breath in as you shrug your shoulders up toward your ears. Exhale fully as you roll the tops of your shoulders forward and down to the starting positing. Repeat five to six times before reversing the direction of the shoulder rolls.

You'll loosen up and release any built-up tension.

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4. Front-Arm Raises

Begin sitting up as straight, feet flat on the floor. Extend your arms next to your sides. Inhale and lift your arms straight out in front of you to shoulder height, keeping palms facing down and shoulders relaxed. Exhale and lower your arms down to start.

You can move both arms together, one at at time, or alternate; aim for 10 to 15 repetitions on each arm. For an added challenge, add small dumbbells starting at 1-pound weight. Have trouble with your grip? Try wrapping a light ankle weight around your wrist instead.

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5. Overhead Front-Arm Raises

Begin sitting up as straight, feet flat on the floor. Extend your arms straight out in front of you at shoulder height, palms facing down. Inhale and raise your arms up until they are in line with your ears (or as far as comfortable), keeping your shoulders relaxed. Exhale as you lower your arms back to start.

You can choose to move both arms at the same time, one at at time, or alternate, aiming for 10 to 15 repetitions on each one. For an added challenge, add a 1-pound dumbell, or fill a 1-quart milk jug with water to your desired weight. You can also use an ankle weight on your wrist.

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6. Full-Frontal Arm Raises

When you're comfortable with front and overhead front-arm raises, try this move with a fuller range of motion.

Sit up as straight with your feet flat on the floor. Extend your arms straight down to your sides. Inhale as you raise them up until they are in line with your ears (or as high as is comfortable). Exhale as you lower back down.

You can do both arms together, one at a time, or alternate, for a total of 10 to 15 repetitions on each arm. Add a light weight (dumbell, filled water jug, whatever!) when you're ready.

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7. Lateral Arm Raises

Sit up straight with your feet flat on the floor, arms at your sides. Inhale deeply as you lift them out to the side until they're in line with your shoulders. Try to keep your elbows and wrists as straight and your shoulders relaxed. Exhale as you lower back down.

You can choose to move both arms at the same time, one at at time, or alternate arms for a total of 10 to 15 repetitions on each arm. For an added challenge, add small dumbbells starting at 1-pound weight, or use a 1-quart milk jug filled with water to your desired weight (1 quart weighs slightly more than 2 pounds).

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8. Pelvic Tilts

Begin sitting up straight with your arms relaxed by your sides. Look forward, keeping your head, shoulders, and hips aligned. While in this position, take a few slow, deep breaths. Next, take a deep breath in, filling your lungs fully. Exhale slowly while pulling your stomach muscles in; slowly curve you pelvis under you and push your lower back against the chair in a C-curve position. Hold for 3 to 5 seconds before slowly inhaling and returning to start.

Repeat 10 to 15 times.

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9. Leg Extensions

Sit up straight with both feet flat on the ground; knees should be at 90 degrees. Inhale slowly while extending one leg, keeping your knee as straight as possible and flexing your ankle so your toes are facing the ceiling (as much as you can). Hold for 1 to 3 seconds, then exhale as you bring your leg back to start. Make sure to keep your seat firmly rooted and your back against the chair, moving only at your knee. Add a small towel or cushion under the knee if needed.

Repeat 10 to 15 times on each leg. For an added challenge, add small ankle weights.

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10. Seated Marches

Sit up straight with your arms by your side, both feet flat, and your knees at 90 degrees. Keeping your knees bent, raise one knee toward the ceiling as high as you can while keeping your seat firmly planted and your back against the chair. Lower your leg before lifting the other. (If you can't do both legs, just do what you can.)

Start slowly and then pick up the pace to a faster march. March for 15 to 30 seconds, rest 30 seconds, and then repeat 3 to 5 times. Aim to build up to 10 to 15 repetitions. For an added challenge, add small ankle weights.

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11. Ankle Stretches

Begin sitting up straight with both legs extended straight in front of you, both feet flat on the ground. (It's also fine to do this one side at a time, or one side only if necessary.) Keeping your heels in contact with the floor, flex your ankles so your toes point toward the ceiling. Think about drawing your toes as close to your shin as possible (they will not touch). Hold for 30 seconds and repeat 3 to 5 times on each leg.

Kristen Domonell, M.S., RYT
Meet Our Writer
Kristen Domonell, M.S., RYT

Kristen Domonell is an Oakland-based health, wellness, and fitness writer whose work has appeared in publications including: Women's Health, Vice, Prevention, Men's Health, Life by Daily Burn, Self, University Business, The Huffington Post, CNN, The Daily Beast, and more. She holds a master's degree in health communication from Northwestern University and a bachelor's in journalism from Marist College.