Working Out When You Have Multiple Sclerosis

If you have multiple sclerosis (MS), you may feel as though maintaining a fitness regimen is more than you can handle—after all, simply getting around can be challenging at times. But, as it is for all people, a fitness regimen is good for those with MS. It doesn’t have to be intense—even mild or moderate exercise offers both physical and mental benefits. Here are some of the best activities to try if you have MS:

Water Exercise

For MS patients who may have problems with spasticity (stiffness or tightness) in their lower extremities, working out in a pool can be a game changer. "The buoyancy of the water helps you do a lot of exercises that you couldn’t do if you weren’t in the water," says Michael Racke, MD, a professor of neurology at The Ohio State University in Columbus who specializes in the treatment of MS. The water allows greater movement and flexibility, provides extra support for limbs, and its resistance can strengthen muscles. Most Ys and community centers with a pool offer aquatic classes.

Yoga

There’s a lot to love about an activity in which participants focus on breathing mindfully, stretching their muscles, and working to keep their bodies properly aligned and balanced. Yoga’s gentle nature seems tailor-made for people with MS, who may not want anything that’s high impact. Before choosing a class, find out what style of yoga is on offer. Iyengar yoga, in which you hold poses, and Ashtanga or Flow yoga, which teaches you to perform poses in sequence, might be good choices. On the other hand, Bikram yoga, which is performed in a studio heated to 105 degrees Fahrenheit, may be tough to handle—MS patients often have difficulty in hot environments.

Tai chi

The hallmarks of this ancient Chinese practice are deep breathing, along with a series of slow, gentle movements that improve balance. Studies (not involving people with MS) have shown that along with better balance, tai chi lowers blood pressure and improves cardiovascular (heart and blood vessel) health.

General household chores

You don’t need to go to a gym or enroll in classes in order to stay fit. For many MS patients, simply staying active around the house can give them the cardiovascular and strength workouts they need. Enjoy gardening? Don your gloves and start planting. Cook up a feast for your family, if your local farmer’s market has you inspired. Sweeping, dusting, organizing—all will get you off the couch and contribute to your health.

As for how often to engage in exercise, you don’t need to keep a marathoner’s training schedule to reap benefits. Racke suggests exercising at moderate intensity twice a week bestows benefits that are not only physical but cognitive as well. "I’m of the opinion that you just have to start developing good habits," he says. If obesity is hindering your efforts to become active, train yourself to eat just a little bit less at each meal. Taking a walk around the neighborhood? Make an effort to lengthen it by a few blocks. "MS patients who exercise…really seem to do better," Racke stresses. "Your whole outlook improves."

Michael Racke, MD, reviewed this story on February 9, 2016.

Sources

Racke, Michael, MD. Phone conversation with source on February 4, 2016.

"Exercise—or not—in Water." National Multiple Sclerosis Society. Accessed on February 3, 2016.

"Welcome to the Yoga Jungle." National Multiple Sclerosis Society. Accessed on February 7, 2016.

"Adaptive Tai Chi." National Multiple Sclerosis Society. Accessed on February 7, 2016.

"Exercise." National Multiple Sclerosis Society. Accessed on February 7, 2016.