Exercise and Multiple Sclerosis
Hope for a treatment for those with MS comes from research done in Utah by Dr. Jack Petajan, with support from the National MS Society. The patients in the study who received this special treatment improved their strength, endurance and bowel and bladder function. They had less fatigue, depression and anger. Many reduced their weight to a healthier level. The treatment? It's not a new drug. It's exercise! The results show without a doubt that people with MS at all levels of disability improve their condition and mood with regular exercise.
We all know we should exercise, but sometimes it is hard to get motivated. It is especially difficult with MS. Fatigue is a problem. Also, MS symptoms can worsen as the body overheats with exercise. Weakness and fatigue lead to less activity. This leads to more weakness, fatigue and other health risks associated with inactivity.
The benefits of exercise for MS are many. Regular exercise:
Improves strength (even in MS)
Improves posture
Lessens fatigue
Improves mood, self-confidence and general well-being
Improves sleep and appetite
Helps with weight loss and more importantly

Improves or maintains the level of independence of the person with MS. Exercise in a group has the added benefit of support from peers. It supplies a reason to get out of the house.

As a physiotherapist working with people who have MS, the most frequent question asked is "what kind of exercise should I be doing to improve by condition?" The answer is not so much what you do, but that you do it! Any activity that gets you up and moving is great. Some people go bowling, play tennis, or go out for a walk. Others prefer something more structured, for example, exercising on a stationary bike, stair climber or rowing machine. Strengthening with weights or with the weight of a limb itself is great. Many with MS enjoy swimming or aquatic exercise because moving in water is so much easier than moving on land.
Aquatic exercise is a good way to work out the entire body. Exercising in water between 83 and 85 degrees F. prevents the body from overheating. The water itself is used both for support (buoyancy) and resistance. The amount of resistance created depends on how fast you move. Many facilities have supervised classes for people with MS and other chronic conditions. Most have mechanical lifts so that those with limited mobility can access the pool.
Stretching of the legs is an exercise that should be done daily. Spasticity or stiffness of the muscles can cause permanent shortening if stretching is not done. Research shows that gently sustained stretches of the legs can help to decrease the stiffness. The benefit of stretching is seen over the long run. It prevents contractures and deformities from affecting movement. By keeping the legs stretched, walking becomes less tiring and much easier.
Exercise is equally important to the person with limited or no mobility. Deep breathing exercises help to keep the lungs well ventilated and clear of infections. Gentle sustained stretches must be done daily to maintain the range of motion of the legs and to prevent stiffness and permanent shortening of the muscles. This is especially important for those who cannot stand or walk. Lying on the stomach for a few minutes each day will stretch the muscles on the front of the legs. For those who have fairly good arm strength, arm weights or arm bike machines can be used.
The benefits of exercise in MS are many. Improved strength, endurance and even bowel and bladder function are possible. Exercise lessens fatigue and improves mood. There are many options for exercise, depending on your interests and abilities. Even severely debilitated individuals can find and benefit from the right exercises. We all hope for a drug treatment for MS. A drug will never be the only answer, however. Proof exists today about the benefits of exercise. It provides an opportunity to take charge of your life and learn to make the most of what you have.
check with your family physician before you begin
contact a physiotherapist in your area who can devise an exercise program specific to your needs
check out local facilities for programs or activities that interest you such as swimming or an exercise group
pick an activity that you will enjoy doing- swimming or walking or working out at a local fitness club
get family and friends involved - exercise is more enjoyable when it's done with a partner or group

don't left yourself get overheated - wear light clothing and exercise in a cool environment (remember symptoms of MS can get worse with overheating)
don't overdo it - when you feel fatigue, stop and rest or change exercises
Just do it!! And enjoy the physical and emotional rewards of being in the best shape you can be

Deanna McNeil Bsc(PT)