Updated: Feb 26
Staying active when you have Multiple Sclerosis (MS) is one of the best tools you have to support your overall mental and physical wellness. While exercising with MS has its challenges, finding a routine that works for your health needs can help you feel your best.
Doctors used to advise against exercise for people with Multiple Sclerosis. The old belief was that physical activity could worsen symptoms or cause MS to progress. Today we understand that exercise can have tremendous wellness benefits for people with MS, though there is no evidence that exercise can slow progression of MS.
Bone density maintenance or improvement
Improved respiratory function
Improved muscle strength
Improved bladder and bowel function
Body weight maintenance or weight loss
Some of the possible mental and emotional benefits of exercise/movement include:
Reduced feelings of anger or depression
Improved sense of overall well-being
Decreased sense of isolation
Improves overall health and wellness
A sedentary lifestyle carries its own risks. Lack of exercise can increase your risk of developing related health conditions like high blood pressure or high cholesterol, cause constipation, damage joint function, and lead to muscle weakness from disuse.
Every person with MS is different. The right exercise routine to support your physical and emotional wellness will depend on your specific MS symptoms, your mobility, your type of MS, and your treatment plan. Find an exercise/movement activity that brings you joy, as when you find something you enjoy doing, you will make time to do it. However; always consult your health care provider before beginning a new exercise routine.
Best Types of Exercise for MS
While everyone with MS has different needs, focusing on cardiovascular fitness, muscle strength, balance and flexibility is a good place to start. Below are a few types of exercise that are commonly recommended for people with MS. However; it's not limited to these, I encourage you to find an activity that compliments you and brings you joy.
Water exercise can be a good option for people with MS. Swimming, water aerobics, and other aquatic exercise programs are good forms of aerobic activity that can also build muscle strength.
Exercising in water can help mitigate certain factors that make exercising on land challenging for some with MS. For example, the buoyancy of the water can help manage fatigue by reducing resistance and cool water can help avoid overheating.
Water activity can also help people overcome mobility constraints. With the right support and safety precautions, people who normally can't use their legs may be able to use their lower limbs in the water, which can have positive physical and psychological effects. There is also a small amount of evidence that water exercise may support cognitive function.
Yoga can help people with MS improve or maintain the balance and strength needed for everyday activities like standing up and sitting down. There are many Yoga videos on YouTube for beginners that you can do from the comfort of your own home. However; if you would like to practice yoga at a studio, avoid heated or Bikram Yoga. You can also call ahead to confirm that your class will not be heated.
Pilates may help people with MS improve balance and mobility, and pain management. A study of 71 people with MS who did not use wheelchairs found that Pilates helped improve walking speed and distance.
The British National Health Service offers a seated Pilates video appropriate for people with MS.
Tai Chi is a gentle Chinese martial art involving slow, deliberate movements. In the general population, Tai Chi has been found to improve muscle strength and balance and lowers blood pressure. In studies of people with MS, Tai Chi has been found to improve balance and overall health and well-being.
Stretching is a great way to manage spasticity, improve flexibility and support range of motion in your neck, shoulders, arms, legs, hips and other joints. Search on YouTube for stretching techniques for those with MS.
Physical Therapy can help people with MS find appropriate exercises and set achievable goals for an exercise program. If you are interesting in seeing a physical therapist (PT), ask your doctor for a referral.
Fatigue, heat sensitivity and mobility constraints are a few common barriers that can get between a person with MS and an exercise routine. Other challenges you may face include the unpredictability of MS and MS-related pain.
The following tips may help you better manage these exercise challenges:
Slow your pace - if you find yourself struggling with fatigue during a workout session, slow down. You can slow your pace when doing aerobic exercise or take longer breaks between sets of weight training exercises.
Account for every effort - when you have limited energy, the time it takes to get to and from the gym or the effort it takes to get from one machine to another takes its toll. Take your commute time getting to your workout and transition time into account when planning your routine or when making goals for yourself. You can also consider home workout options.
Stay cool - if you're among the 80% of people with MS who are sensitive to heat, you may worry about raising your body temperature through exercise. You can avoid overheating by using fans, ice-cold beverages, or cooling neck wraps to control your body temperature. You can also try a cold shower or bath before working out.
Adapt to your mobility needs - using a wheelchair, cane or other mobility device doesn't have to put a stop to physical activity. Depending on where you live, there may be exercise classes specifically designed for people with MS. There are also many exercise routines for wheelchair users available online. If you would like to go to a local gym, you can ask the fitness facility about their disability accommodations.
Find compassion - MS can be unpredictable, and your condition will likely change over time. If you have a relapse or your MS progresses, you may have to adapt your routine to meet your new abilities. This can be tremendously frustrating. In those moments when you're feeling down or defeated, try to find compassion for yourself. No matter what adaptations you and your health care team determine are best, you are putting in the effort to support your physical, mental, and emotional wellness.
Be mindful of pain - neuropathy, muscle spasticity or general muscle pain can stand between you and physical activity. While exercising when you're in pain can be extremely difficult, staying active as much as possible can actually help manage pain. Stretching exercises and water activities can be particularly beneficial if your pain is related to spasticity. While exercise can help you manage pain, your exercises should NOT cause pain. Talk to your doctor or Certified Health and Wellness Coach if you feel pain while being physically active.
Finding the right exercise program for MS is often a process of trial and error. We sometimes have to try multiple ways until we find the right one for us. But don't limit yourself to just one.
Finding a variety of exercise/movement activities that you enjoy doing, will give you more options and can alternate. For example: Saturday I take my dogs to the park and I walk the trails to get my steps in. Monday I go to kickboxing and workout for one hour. It combines cardio, building CORE muscles, strength, endurance and balance. Wednesday I do yoga in the comfort of my own home, using YouTube videos to walk me through each exercise. Friday I walk my dogs around the neighborhood.
My clients find that sticking with physical activity, even if it's challenging, yields rewards for their physical and mental well-being. Together, we find solutions that work for you and can help you modify an exercise routine, if needed.
Jen Martin is a Master Certified Wellness Coach, specializing in helping women with Multiple Sclerosis to skyrocket energy levels, manage MS symptoms and improve overall health naturally, so that you can transform from Fatigued to Fabulous! The MS Energy Blueprint is your personalized roadmap to your health and wellness success.
Schedule Your Healing Strategy Session today to get started on your health and wellness journey.