When someone with multiple sclerosis is fatigued and experiencing pain—two of the most common symptoms of the debilitating disease—exercising may not be the first solution that pops into her mind.
But staying active is one of the most important parts of a treatment plan.
Studies have shown that regularly exercising can improve endurance, increase strength and agility, decrease fatigue and improve mood.
Exercise can sound intimidating, especially for someone who struggles with immobility. But it doesn’t need to be strenuous or even done outside the home to be incorporated into a daily routine.
Many community centers offer group classes and access to a workout facility. Or, if staying home is preferable, exercise videos provide instruction on the correct form and duration for specific movements.
Before trying any new exercises, always talk to a doctor to confirm what level of activity is recommended. A physical therapist can create customized plans for various symptoms and progression levels.
In general, most exercise routines will involve a version of these five categories, which have all been shown to benefit those with MS.
Stretching for at least 10 minutes a day can help maintain a person’s range of motion and ease symptoms like muscle stiffness and soreness. Focus on arms, chest, and legs, trying to hold each stretch for 30- 60 seconds.
Many of these exercises, like reaching the arms up to the ceiling or stretching the chest by opening the arms wide behind the body, can be done from a seated position. Equipment like exercise bands and stepping blocks can help with balance and give the body a deeper stretch.
Remember, stretching is supposed to feel good, so modify the movements until they feel right.
Yoga or Tai Chi can also help calm the mind and reduce stress, an important part of maintaining emotional wellbeing.
Walking is an aerobic activity that builds muscle strength, increases balance, and gets the heartrate going.
Doctors suggest starting slowly with a warm-up and drinking plenty of water. Using a fan or wearing a cooling device like a vest can help keep the body temperature regular.
Aim for reaching a moderate level of exercise: there’s perspiration and heavy breathing, but it’s still manageable to carry on a conversation. It’s recommended to get in about 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity a week.
Find a time of the day that’s convenient and feels the best for activity, which may be in the cooler hours early in the morning since heat can often exacerbate MS symptoms. Or, find an adequate indoor space.
And remember, everyday activities like walking while shopping or taking out the dog count toward this goal.
Joining a walking group can be a great motivator for keeping up with the routine and hitting exercise goals.
Water creates an environment of buoyancy, weightlessness, and resistance, which makes the pool an ideal place for exercise.
It also provides support and stability to practice functional movements, such as balance, coordination, and flexibility, that many people with MS struggle with on land.
Classes are offered at most gyms and community centers and typically involve gentle stretching, a slow jog, and then a cardio push like a faster jog, to increase the heartrate.
Water levels are shallow for easy movement and temperature is recommended to stay between 80 and 84 degrees, according to the National MS Society, to keep the body cool.
Floating devices, such as noodles, foam dumbbells, and kickboards can help with balance.
While aerobic exercises like walking and swimming exercise the heart and lungs, resistance, or strength training, improves muscle strength.
Since muscle weakness is a common symptom for people with MS, building up muscle and bone strength can help delay symptom progression. It can also help with range of motion, posture, and balance.
Examples of upper body strength training include arm raises, triceps dips and rows. The goal is to complete about 10-20 reps, at least twice a week. Most of the exercises can be done from a seated position and don’t require weights or other equipment.
However, incorporating resistance bands or machines can be helpful for stability and keeping correct posture.
Ask a physical therapist or trainer about modifications to accommodate specific symptoms.
Click here for further instruction and examples of other suggested exercises.
As important as including exercises into the daily routine, letting the body cool down from this activity is equally as vital.
Walking at a slower pace, slightly stretching or marching in place allows the body to not only recover from the exercise just done, but also prepare for the next session.
Pay attention to how breathing, heartrate, and body temperature slow down to their normal settings.
Use this time to monitor how the body feels after a workout versus before.
Consider the two-hour rule: if symptoms feel worse two hours after exercising, then there was most likely too much exertion and the activity level or duration needs to be lowered for the next exercise session.