Multiple Sclerosis Centers of Excellence
Staying Active While Living with Multiple Sclerosis
Emily Reilly, Certified Personal Trainer (National MS Society)
At the young age of 17, I heard the words, “Emily, you have multiple sclerosis”. Living an active lifestyle was a huge part of my life and I refused to let this diagnosis stop me! I went on to play college soccer and then became a certified personal trainer and group fitness instructor to create fitness classes for people living with MS and to let them know that no matter what their limitation, they CAN keep moving. After 15 years of living with MS, I can say it has not stopped me yet!
When it comes to living with MS, staying active is so important not only physically, but mentally and emotionally as well. However, staying active can be tricky depending on the various symptoms we may experience on a daily basis. As someone living with MS, I know MS symptoms like pain and fatigue can feel like a barrier to being active. The good news, research shows physical activity is safe and beneficial for people living with MS. There are now recommendations on how to stay active for every level of ability. Whether you use a wheelchair to get around or require a minimal level of support, living with MS and staying active is possible and no matter what your limitation, you CAN keep moving.
How does someone with MS exercise safely? What exercises are recommended for the different levels of ability? I am here to help answer some of those questions by sharing what research is showing, tips on how to exercise safely for your level of ability, tips to overcoming barriers, and resources to help get you moving.
Before we can understand what research says about how people living with MS can stay active, we must first know the difference between exercise and lifestyle physical activity:
Exercise is planned physical activity that is often repetitive with a specific purpose in mind, like participating in a 30-minute workout class to help improve strength.
Lifestyle physical activity is any type of activity that happens throughout the day, including doing chores, shopping, or going for a walk.
Now that we understand the different types of physical activity, let’s take a deeper dive into what research says about what someone living with MS can do to stay active.
Research on Exercise in MS
MS symptoms can often feel like a barrier to being active. The amazing thing about exercise and physical activity is that it can be seen as “medicine” - studies have shown that exercise and physical activity can help improve MS symptoms as well as possibly modify the course of the disease. Research also shows people living with MS tend to be less active than the general public. An inactive lifestyle can lead to other health problems like heart disease, weight gain, depression, and so much more. This is why it is important for people living with MS to learn how to have a healthy, active lifestyle. Studies show people with MS should get 150 minutes of exercise or lifestyle physical activity a week. That may feel like an intimidating number, but if you break that down into smaller amounts, say 30 minutes a day, 5 days a week, it may feel more achievable.
Understanding what types of exercises are beneficial and recommended for people living with MS is important. According to the paper published by the National MS Society, the types of exercise that people living with MS should incorporate are aerobic, flexibility, resistance, breathing, and neuromotor. An example of neuromotor exercise may include agility, hand eye coordination, or balance/walking exercises.
Now, let’s look at exercise recommendations for various ability levels.
Exercising Safely at Any MS Ability Level
We all are at different levels of ability in our journey with MS, so finding exercises that you are able to do safely is important. Below are some exercise examples from the chart Exercise and Physical Activity Recommendations for ALL People with MS: Guidelines.
People who require a minimal level of support, exercise examples:
- Riding a stationary bike
- Walking or running
- Using free weights
People whose walking is limited, exercise examples:
- Arm cycling
- Standing/walking with a walker
- Seated dancing
- Abdominal exercises
People who use a wheelchair, exercise examples:
- Arm cycling
- Using a standing frame
- Breathing exercises using a spirometer
- Abdominal exercises
- Stretching upper and lower body
People who have a higher level of support needs, exercise examples:
- Breathing exercises using a spirometer
- Range of motion for joints
- Participating in activities of daily living
Now that we have a better understanding of what types of exercises can be done at different levels of ability, it is important to talk about how we overcome other barriers to living an active lifestyle.
Tips to Overcoming Barriers
There are many barriers that can influence physical activity, including financial limitations, transportation issues, health challenges, accessibility, time constraints, and many more. I wanted to share a few tips that may help you overcome some of these barriers to help get you moving:
- Find a workout buddy. When we can find someone to workout with, we are more likely to stick with it. Having someone to workout with will help get you moving on those days you would rather stay on the couch.
- Find what you enjoy and stick to it. Exercise doesn’t have to be boring. If you can find something that you enjoy doing, you are more likely to stick with it and look forward to doing it every day.
- Give yourself grace. Every day with MS can be different. Just know that you may have some bad days where being active may not be possible and guess what, that is OK. We have to learn to listen to our bodies and give ourselves grace and permission to rest if we need to rest.
- Celebrate little victories. MS impacts so many aspects of our lives, but instead of focusing on the things you can’t do, celebrate the little victories of the day. This can help shift our focus and give us an attitude of gratitude.
My hope is that you feel encouraged, empowered, and confident that no matter what limitations you may face, you CAN keep moving. Don’t forget to give yourself grace, celebrate your little victories, and keep moving.
It is always important to talk to your healthcare provider before you begin any new workout program or exercise class. Thanks to technology, we can access a multitude of free exercise videos online. However, be aware that some workouts are not geared towards people living with MS. Safety should always be a priority when it comes to working out, so below you will find links to FREE exercise demonstrations and workouts specifically for people living with MS.
Resources to Help Keep You Moving
National MS Society YouTube exercise videos and resources.
- Aerobic Exercise Tips for MS (video)
- Breathing Exercise Tips for MS (video)
- Diet, Exercise, and Healthy Behaviors
- Exercise and Physical Activity Recommendations for ALL People with MS
- Pathways to Wellness in MS
- Stretching Exercise Tips for MS (video)
Keep Moving with Emily has exercise classes for people living with MS.
Disclaimer: Links are provided as a convenience and for informational purposes only. They do not constitute an endorsement or an approval by MSCoE of any of the products, services, or opinions of the organization. MSCoE bears no responsibility for the accuracy, legality, or content of the external site or for that of subsequent links. Contact the external site for answers to questions regarding its content.