Patient Blogs | Multiple Sclerosis
Exercise Keeps Me Going
photo of five senior people in swimming pool

Physicist Isaac Newton wrote that a body in motion tends to stay in motion, while a body at rest tends to stay at rest. It’s Newton’s First Law of Motion, and it definitely seems to apply to people with multiple sclerosis (MS).

I never was much of an athlete, but when I was younger, I did like to move my body. I played playground basketball and soccer. I liked to walk and hike. Then 35 year ago when I learned I had MS, those activities got a lot harder.  Even walking became a challenge. 

So what did I do? Stay in motion, or stay at rest? To be honest, I did some of both, but I wish I had moved more. When I do move, I feel much better. I have more energy. I sleep better. I’m happier. 

Sounds like a lot of motivation to exercise, doesn’t it?  Still, I find it really hard to devote a modest 30 to 60 minutes per day to movement, when I probably should be doing a lot more.

Finding New Ways to Move

As my MS has progressed, I have had to give up things I used to do, like basketball and hiking.  I kept with them as long as I felt I could still do them, but maybe I gave up too soon.  I switched to swimming and went to the pool 3 days a week, which was great. The water supports the swimmer’s weight and keeps you from getting overheated.

But after a while, I couldn’t swim laps anymore; my leg just wouldn’t kick; it all got too hard. I couldn’t stand well enough to do shallow water exercise, but I was lucky to find deep water aerobics. You put on a flotation belt so you can’t sink and so a series of movements led by an instructor.

I loved deep water movement so much that I even learned to be an instructor and led classes for about 4 years. But I noticed that my MS kept progressing, and a Chinese medicine doctor convinced me the cold water was making it worse.  So I stopped that, too. I’ll never know if I should have kept on, but giving it up certainly meant I would be resting more and moving less.

So I moved to seated exercise. I would move along with videos like Sit and Be Fit, but I found I couldn’t do it for long because I would heat up. I slowed down again to my current program of seated qi gong and yoga in bed. It’s mostly stretching, but I also got useful exercises from physical therapists and occupational therapists. 

Therapists recommended low-intensity stretch bands with which I do a series of eight stretches once or twice a day.  Well, some days. I have a pair of 2-pound weights I use for a little bit of upper body strengthening.

Maintain what you’ve got or recover what you’ve lost?

I often wonder whether it’s better to work on maintaining the limited strengths I still have or try to recover functions that are almost gone. It seems so pointless to struggle to do three or four leg lifts of a few inches each.  But therapists tell me both are important. It’s generally much easier to keep what you’ve got than to recover what you’ve lost. And definitely, what you don’t use, you tend to lose. I know from experience that it’s easy to lie around and get weaker week after week if I don’t move.

I think about what kinds of movement or strength will help me get through life.  What will enable me to transfer in and out of chairs and beds, or sit up a desk for hours, cook, reach up to get things? 

Maximizing upper body strength seems really important.  Shoulders and arms can lift my butt out of a chair, enable me to open jars, chop vegetables, lift things.  But maintaining what’s left of lower body also keeps me going. It really helps to be able to bend and straighten legs, cross and uncross them, put a little weight on them without falling. So I do try to stand as part of my exercise routine.

Exercise Makes Me Feel Better

On a normal night, I need to wake up around midnight to catheterize. If I try to go right back to sleep, I won’t be able to.  I’ll toss and turn and worry for hours. I’m pretty sure this happens because my body isn’t tired.  It’s yelling, “I want to move. Let’s go do something.” I usually get up and wash the dishes and do some writing, but that’s not enough to get me back to sleep. If I do my qi gong and some weights, then I sleep much better.   

When I exercise, I also find I have more energy in the day. My body feels more alive; I’m more aware of it. I don’t need to nap as much, maybe because I slept better the night before.

A couple of other things I have noticed: 

It’s important to be aware while exercising. It should be a meditative practice; we should feel our bodies and our breath, not thinking about our problems or watching a video screen. 

It’s possible to do any exercise meditatively. I think that’s how baseball batters can hit a pitch traveling 99 miles an hour. They aren’t thinking about other things when they do that. But certain exercises lend themselves to being mindful. Yoga, tai chi, and qi gong are famous for that, but I think we can do all exercises in a meditative way if we focus on our bodies while we do them. 

Even so, the mind doesn’t always want to move. “That’s hard,” it says. “Let’s just stay here and take it easy.” The body might sometimes agree with the mind, and sometimes they’re right. Rest is important, too. Exercise shouldn’t be a have-to, another responsibility.  But when your body wants to move, tell the mind to get on board. When you get in motion, you will feel so much better.


To connect with other people living with multiple sclerosis, join our MS Facebook Support Group.




Photo Credit: A Bello / The Image Bank via Getty Images

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David Spero, RN

David Spero, RN

Diagnosed since 1989

David Spero, RN, became a writer and health coach after being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1989. He writes books and blogs about living with chronic illness and the social causes of illness. A married father of two and grandfather of one, Spero is active in causes including health care, peace, and the environment. See his books; follow him on Medium or Twitter.

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