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What is Multiple Sclerosis?
Multiple Sclerosis (MS) is a disease of the central nervous system. This system is comprised of the brain and spinal cord and, when it is compromised, it can be disabling. Essentially what happens is that the immune system attacks the protective covering on nerve fibers which disrupts the communication between the brain and the rest of the body. The affected nerves will vary from person to person, so not all people with MS will exhibit all of the same symptoms.1
What Do Symptoms Look Like?
The most impacted function with Multiple Sclerosis is movement. Numbness or weakness in the limbs, tremors, and an unsteady gait are among the most recognizable symptoms. Vision, speech, sexual, bowel, and bladder problems are also known to occur.1
Exercise with MS
Muscle weakness, balance and coordination problems, dizziness, and difficulty breathing can make exercise a significant chore for people with Multiple Sclerosis. However, activity is still very important. Common MS treatments and inactivity can render people with this disease more susceptible to developing osteoporosis, which can make balance and coordination issues an even greater concern. This can be prevented or slowed, however, through physical activity and proper nutrition.2
A 2004 study found that, even though cases of MS vary across patients, exercise programs designed to increase cardiorespiratory fitness, muscle strength, and mobility can enhance a patient’s quality of life while also reducing the risk of secondary disorders.3 However, it’s important to adhere to exercises that are safe.
A publication by BMC Neurology identifies a number of practical and beneficial exercises for patients with MS. An important preface to their findings is that each exercise program should be designed to address a patient’s specific goal and should take into account a person’s baseline impairments and capabilities. Only a healthcare professional can provide the appropriate fitness routine for your needs, but generally, these aspects of training are known to hold benefits for patients with MS:
- Aerobic Training: Low to moderate intensity aerobic training is effective on cardiovascular fitness, mood, reduction of fatigue, and overall quality of life. Examples include bicycling, aquatic exercise, and treadmill walking. Rowing and running are also potential options but only for patients with proper functioning.4
- Strength Exercises: For MS patients, supervised resistance training is safer than unsupervised training, and the use of weight-machines is safer than the use of free-weights. It is also important to prioritize the lower body because that is where the strength deficit is usually greater. Examples of strength exercises include the seated leg press, seated hamstring curls, knee extensions, shoulder press, chest press, and lat pull-downs. As a note, seated exercises are the safer option when compared to standing exercises.4
- Flexibility Exercises: These types of exercises are important to enhance mobility and improve balance and posture. Slow, gentle, and prolonged stretching is recommended before and after exercise with a particular focus on spastic muscles (tight or stiff muscles). Yoga and tai chi classes may be options for patients with higher functioning.4
- Balance and Coordination Exercises: Exercises that challenge balance can be very helpful. It is important that a stable support is available or that patients exercise in water. Water exercises provide support that help protect participants from dangerous falls.4
As with all new exercise routines, it’s important to know when to stop. You can help protect yourself from injury if you are attentive to how your body is feeling with each movement. When it comes to Multiple Sclerosis, there are a few more things to keep in mind.
- Heat Intolerance: Heat stress caused by exercise can exacerbate the symptoms of MS. For this reason, heat-sensitive patients are encouraged to exercise in air-conditioned rooms, to perform water-based exercises, and to avoid exercising during the hottest part of the day.4
- Fatigue: Exercise can make symptoms of fatigue worse in MS patients.4 This is part of why it’s important that you don’t push yourself to exhaustion. It can be dangerous to do so, especially if you are using free-weights. In the grand scheme of things, exercise can actually help improve symptoms of fatigue,4 but it is important be aware of your limits during exercise.
- Risk of Falling: It is advised that patients who are at risk of falling be monitored during exercise.4 A fall is a risk not worth taking, so it is important to have non-slip surfaces in areas of aquatic activities and to take precautions during any form of exercise.
What is your approach to exercise with MS? Share your thoughts in the comments below! For more articles like this one, and to stay in-the-know on important health and nutrition topics, subscribe to our newsletter to receive monthly highlights from the Living Healthy Blog.
- “Multiple Sclerosis.” Mayo Clinic, Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research, 19 Apr. 2019, https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/multiple-sclerosis/symptoms-causes/syc-20350269.
- Pietrangelo, Ann, and Kristeen Cherney. “The Effects of Multiple Sclerosis on Your Body.” Healthline, 2018, https://www.healthline.com/health/multiple-sclerosis/effects-on-the-body#7.
- White, L.J. & Dressendorfer, R.H. Sports Med (2004) 34: 1077. https://doi.org/10.2165/00007256-200434150-00005
- Halabchi, F., Alizadeh, Z., Sahraian, M. A., & Abolhasani, M. (2017). Exercise prescription for patients with multiple sclerosis; potential benefits and practical recommendations. BMC Neurology, 17(1), 185. https://doi.org/10.1186/s12883-017-0960-9