Exercise can improve quality of life for MS patients

Multiple Sclerosis is a neurological disease that disrupts communication between the brain and other parts of the body. The disease affects people differently but most people with MS have weakness in their arms and legs; and problems with balance, coordination and fatigue are common.

In the early days of MS treatment, patients were often discouraged from exercising because doctors thought physical exertion made MS symptoms worse.

That thinking changed, however, after researchers at the University of Utah published a report in 1996 that demonstrated the benefits of an aerobic exercise program for people with MS. According to information on the National Multiple Sclerosis Society website, patients who participated in the program experienced:

• Better cardiovascular fitness
• Improved strength
• Better bladder and bowel function
• Less fatigue and depression
• A more positive attitude
• Increased participation in social activities

Additional studies have confirmed the benefits of exercise, including a new report in the Journal of Clinical Outcomes Management, which reviews increasing evidence that exercise is not only tolerated by people with MS patients, but it can improve quality of life and help manage symptoms, too.

One of the main effects of MS symptoms is that they discourage people from moving. Inactivity can then lead to greater risk of coronary heart disease, decreased bone density and decreased cardiovascular functions. Repeated use of corticosteroids, which are regularly used to reduce flare-ups of MS symptoms, can also weaken bones.

“An exercise program needs to fit the capabilities and limitations of the individual,” the National MS Society says. “It may need to be adjusted as changes occur in MS symptoms. A physical therapist experienced with MS can be helpful in designing, supervising and revising an exercise program. Any person with MS who is initiating a new exercise program should also consult with a physician before starting.”

One particular caution cited by the studies is that people with MS should avoid exercising in hotter conditions, as heat has been found to exacerbate symptoms and cause excessive fatigue.

Yoga is a good choice for people with MS, as it offers several different options to improve stamina, strength and balance. Some people with MS who use canes, walkers or wheelchairs may find benefits from seated yoga positions taught in chair yoga classes, which are often available at senior centers and YMCAs.

Other exercise options suggested by the National MS Society include tai chi, strength training, stretching, and swimming or other exercises in water. “Core” exercises that build strength and stamina in the abdominal and back muscles — such as those taught in Pilates classes — also can help people with MS who deal with balance issues.