Recent evidence suggests that regular exercise can improve quality of life and help to alleviate many symptoms of multiple sclerosis.
We all know that regular exercise is important for our health and general well-being. Despite public knowledge and the advice of health care professionals, most of us don't look forward to hitting the gym and working up a sweat. Even though "exercise" can be as easy as a 15-minute routine on your living room floor or a brisk walk outside, there often seems to be more important, or easier, things to accomplish in a day.
Now, imagine your doctor recommends eliminating exercise entirely. This advice has been given to people living with multiple sclerosis for years to avoid aggravating their symptoms. Recent evidence suggests, however, that regular exercise can improve quality of life and help to alleviate many MS symptoms.
MS is a chronic neurological disease that affects the brain and spinal cord. The body's own defense system attacks the outer layer of healthy nerves and interrupts the impulses being sent from the brain to other parts of the body. This can result in symptoms such as weakness, poor balance, fatigue, heat sensitivity, loss of sensation, difficulty walking, incontinence and double vision. Symptoms vary from person to person and can change over time in the same person. No one is quite sure what causes MS, but medications can help to slow the disease and physical therapy and regular exercise can help control the symptoms.
According to the American Academy of Sports Medicine and the American Heart Association, healthy adults should participate in moderate intensity cardio exercise for 30 minutes a day, five times a week and do eight to 10 strength training exercises two times a week to promote health and reduce the risk of chronic disease. Even if you have MS, you can still reap the same benefits from regular exercise as otherwise healthy adults.
The most recent research confirms that exercise can help to decrease levels of fatigue, improve bladder control, strengthen bones, decrease depression, manage weight and make your heart healthy. There are many options to choose from: aerobics, swimming, sports, strength training, yoga, walking, etc. The best type of exercise varies from person to person and depends on your symptoms, fitness level and general health.
If you cannot participate in activities that you used to enjoy, such as sailing or dancing, talk to your doctor or a physical therapist about new ways to get active or modify your old favorites. Check with local MS support groups for MS-specific exercise classes in your community.
The important thing is to get moving, take it slowly and listen to what your body is telling you. Jumping in and overdoing it can lead to injuries and fatigue and may turn you off from exercising.
As we approach summer, it's a good idea to consider how you might need to modify your current program if you have heat sensitivity. Some people with MS notice that their symptoms worsen when their body heat rises. This inevitably happens with exercise and there are ways to cope with it. Exercising in the early morning or evening when it is cooler or in air conditioning, having plenty of cold drinks, and opting to exercise in a pool will all keep you from overheating.
When starting an MS exercise program, you should consult with your doctor about what type of regimen is best. It may be recommended that you meet with a physical therapist who can help create a program tailored to your symptoms and abilities. An experienced physical therapist can address mobility issues, help build strength and improve flexibility, and consider the broad spectrum of MS symptoms as they affect quality of life.
Kate Gebski is a physical therapist at Massachusetts' Spaulding-Framingham Outpatient Center. She has a Masters of Science in physical therapy as well as a neurologic clinical specialist certification. She has a special interest in treating patients with neurological diagnoses as well as multiple sclerosis.