Multiple Sclerosis (MS) and Exercise

“Keep Moving or You will Stop Moving”

One of the National MS Society’s slogans is “MS Stops People from Moving”. True. But in my opinion, this is an area where we can fight back—by exercising.

Exercise is one of the most important things a person with MS can do, and some type of exercise should be done everyday if possible. Done properly, exercise will never hurt you; however, not exercising will.

For starters, just like normal people without a disability it makes us look good, feel good, keeps or takes the weight off, and reduces stress. Exercise benefits overall health from our cardiovascular system to our digestive system. As we age, it helps to slow muscle breakdown and increase strength.

Most people with MS over time will develop some or many problems with things such as balance, coordination, muscle weakness and ataxia, spasticity, endurance…. There are many types of exercises one can do to effectively help these problems.

When one of these symptoms develops, it is important to start doing exercises tailored to address each symptom as soon as it begins, and then continuing everyday afterward. Make it part of your daily agenda, just like brushing your teeth in the morning. The longer you wait, the more difficult it will be to overcome the problem, like weakness or balance.

In addition, putting off exercising can lead to further difficulties. For example, weakened trunk or abdominal muscles could eventually lead to a curvature of the spine that will cause poor posture, pain, and at some point an inability to correct.

Exercise for MS falls basically fall into these categories:

1. Muscle Stretching – muscles get tight from sitting/lying down a lot or due to the very common symptom of spasticity that causes tightness and spasms.

2. Muscle Strengthening – muscles get weak from less use, misuse, or just from the disease itself.

3. Muscle Balance – means to maintain or improve the alignment and relationship muscles have to each other.

4. Aerobics – exercises for overall endurance and healthy maintenance of our heart, respiratory, digestive and other body systems.

5. Relaxation and Breathing – to alleviate all types of stress, improve mood, help reduce pain.

For beginners, it is a good idea to start out slowly and ease into a routine that works for you. Do not do things that hurt, because then you will create additional problems for yourself.

Find a physical therapist that understands MS and has worked with MS patients. They understand the sensitivity to heat, and what types of exercises are best to begin with an individual’s needs. Also, there are many programs offered by various MS organizations that are offered and designed for multiple sclerosis symptoms. These classes include techniques such as tai chi, pilates and yoga for strengthening, balance and relaxation.

Aquatic therapy is fantastic for persons with MS, as all five categories listed above can be accomplished in a pool. A swimming pool adds the additional benefit of safety, buoyancy and coolness of the water. Again, many MS organizations offer these types of programs through their local chapters as well as local health clubs/organizations. (Note: see Aquatic Therapy for )


Now all types of exercises do not have to be done everyday, and many can be incorporated into a daily activity. I’ll use myself as an example:

I have been a swimmer all of my life, and when I developed MS, swimming became my #1 form of exercise. Three times a week, I have religiously gone in the pool to stretch, exercise, and practice things I had/have trouble doing on land (like standing, walking, and balancing).

On days when I’m not in the pool, I get on the floor and do a variety of exercises. I have learned what to do over the years from my dancing days, physical therapy, TV/tapes, etc. I am still able to lie on my back and pull my knees up to my chest and rock from side to side, which feels ‘painfully good’ for my severe back pain from the spasticity. My goal is a 45-minute workout, but if I’m too fatigued, I’ll give myself a vacation day from it or minimize it to five or ten minutes.

Throughout the day, I’ve learned to keep bending and stretching by trying to do some light housekeeping. Again, I do what I can do, but when my body starts screaming “enough!” I quit, lie down and rest. If there is a period of time I can’t do these things because of a relapse, for instance, my physical therapist has taught me gentle exercises I can do for each part of my body (such as head/shoulder rolls, arm extensions…) Minimally, if I have no energy at all, my husband will stretch my legs and back for me, which helps my spasticity tremendously.

Over the years, I suffered much from weakness and fatigue, so I relied on assistive devices to help maintain correct posture and conserve energy. It gave me more opportunities to do my daily exercises, which really is physical therapy.

I have started making videos to demonstrate exercises that I have done for years and continue to do. They can be viewed on my website. (On the ‘Videos’ page, just click on the chosen line item.) You may get some ideas and tips from them, but keep in mind I have been doing these for years and my endurance level is high.

I said it before, and I’ll say it again: Getting started with anything is the hardest part of doing something new. If you are not exercising regularly, get started today—you will be glad you did.