Managing Symptoms of Multiple Sclerosis: The Benefits of Exercise for MS

As Multiple Sclerosis (MS) attacks the Central Nervous System (CNS), with potentially disabling effects, it can be hard to find the motivation to exercise. Pain feels incessant, fatigue is constant, and weakness clouds over the body. Naturally, many MS patients take the way of minimal to no physical movement under the impression that it would avoid aggravating pain and worsen fatigue – this is actually a profound mistake that can lead to more harm than good. In fact, a sedentary lifestyle can exacerbate the symptoms of MS in patients, and entail additional health complications

Regular physical movement becomes ever more paramount with MS. Without physical movement, MS only becomes a vicious cycle of wanting to be active again, yet feeling afraid that exercise will only aggravate symptoms. The answer is that physical movement is not merely a want but a fundamental need. If you are a person living with MS, a doctor/nurse treating an MS patient, or even just studying under online family nurse practitioner programs and working with MS patient/s as part of your clinical placement, then keep reading to discover some of the surprising benefits exercise has in controlling and even alleviating MS symptoms. 

Flexibility and Mobility

Muscle tightness and rigidity are central symptoms of MS. Swimming, water walking, or water aerobics are a few effective water-based cardio workouts suitable for MS patients to relieve these symptoms. The beauty of hydrotherapy is that it naturally stretches tighter muscles, which gives MS patients increased flexibility and the ability to move in ways they would not be able to on land. Movement in water also benefits cardiovascular endurance, fatigue reduction, and mobility building. 

It is recommended that patients use instruments such as water weights, wet belts, noodles, and other pool equipment to get the best movements. Pool temperature should never exceed the National Multiple Sclerosis Society’s 85 degrees F recommendation, since this would aggravate symptoms such as fatigue. Stretching can also decrease muscle tightness and prevent motion loss for patients.  

Strengthening Muscles and Bones

MS nerve damage consists of the loss of myelin sheath, the coating that wraps and protects each nerve cell, in the pathways carrying motor signals to the brain. Inevitably, this leads to slower signaling between the brain and muscles, causing muscle weakness as manifested through numbness, spasms, and stiffness. MS patients are also more predisposed to bone loss and osteoporosis. 

Low-moderate intensity strength or resistance training is the best way to recover muscle and bone strength. Having good muscle endurance is integral to performing daily activities. People with MS should be constantly working the major muscle groups in the lower and upper body – glutes, quads, and hamstrings; pectorals, deltoids, biceps, and triceps – to improve coordination, posture, standing, walking, and overall balance. Without using these muscles, it can lead to deconditioning, causing further weakness. The same applies to the bones; only regular physical movement can reduce pain. 

For the lower body, walking, leg cycling, walk lunges, and other combination aerobic exercises are recommended; for the upper body, push-ups, shoulder presses, biceps curves, and weight lifting can activate weaker muscles. MS patients should engage in exercises appropriate for their fitness levels to avoid injury, and to gradually build on better physical functioning. It is only with stronger muscles and bones that individuals with MS can perform daily tasks with ease.

Recovering Cognitive Function

Since MS attacks the CNS, inducing disruption to neuronal activity, cognitive change is quite common in people with MS. Cognitive impairment can lead to greater difficulties in vital functions such as information processing, memory retention, and attention span. 

While there is no pharmacologic treatment for cognitive impairment in MS patients, exercise is still nevertheless a powerful tool for cognitive rehabilitation for individuals with MS-related cognitive impairment. Exercise has been linked to better memory retention, increased information processing speed, and stronger attention spans. Physical activity directly stimulates the growth of new neurons and neuronal activity. It is advised that individuals with MS who have more severe impairments have additional supervision during their exercise sessions to ensure patient safety.   

Less Fatigue and More Energy 

Fatigue affects more than 80% of people with MS, and is one of the most debilitating barriers to adequate management of the condition. And 55% of MS patients reported that it was one of their worst symptoms. It seems self-contradictory, but regular physical movement can assist in alleviating fatigue and boosting energy levels. 

A key characteristic of fatigue is reduced oxygen delivery to muscles, causing pain and weakness. Exercise acts as a propeller for oxygen circulation and the production of mitochondria, also called the powerhouses of cells, which transform the glucose (derived from the food and oxygen one consumes and breathes) into energy for the body. Walking for example is an easy and accessible exercise that facilitates oxygen production to muscles. For MS, doctors recommend walking at a comfortable pace for 150 minutes per week.  

Improved Mental Health

MS not only creates challenges for the body but can also take a toll on the mind. Mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety are highly prevalent in people who live with MS. Living with a chronic condition like MS can greatly affect one’s mood and mental health. However, exercise not only becomes a powerful mood booster, but also a manager of MS-induced/related stress, anxiety, and depression.  

Low-intensity yet still powerful exercises such as Tai Chi and Yoga, both consisting of various forms of breathing, stretching, and meditation to promote harmony of mind and body, provide measurable benefits in improving psychological well-being and reducing stress. Ultimately, any physical activity helps reduce pain perception and mood elevation. Regularity is key here, as it can ensure that MS patients have a natural yet effective means to improve their emotional and mental well-being for the long term. 

Exercise is not only beneficial but foundational to controlling MS or MS-related symptoms. Any regular physical movement can assist in alleviating typical symptoms such as pain, stiffness, and numbness. Carers and patients should be mindful of heat sensitivity during exercise sessions, and follow safe exercise precautions. Nevertheless, from a 25-minute walk each day to running on the treadmill, all forms of movement can improve mood and overall quality of life.

Team PainAssist
Team PainAssist
Written, Edited or Reviewed By: Team PainAssist, Pain Assist Inc. This article does not provide medical advice. See disclaimer
Last Modified On:April 26, 2024

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