Tuesday, June 12,
By Coleman Cornelius
Denver Post Northern Colorado Bureau
Kelly Walker-Haley was an aerobics instructor preparing to pursue a master's degree in exercise physiology when she was diagnosed in 1988 with multiple sclerosis.
Within several years, her symptoms included exhaustion; problems with eyesight, speech and balance; and, ultimately, led to the full-time use of a wheelchair.
Like others with the incurable, degenerative disease of the central nervous system, Walker-Haley had a choice: to quit her active lifestyle in the face of chronic illness, or to modify her activities and press on.
She chose the latter. These days, Walker-Haley, 35, is training to ride a custom-built tandem bicycle with her husband, Jack, in the Denver MS150, a 150-mile cycling event from Highlands Ranch to Can~on City on July 14 and 15. While her husband pedals and steers, Walker-Haley uses an arm crank to power the cycle.
On Monday, she was among about 40 participants in a yoga workshop designed for people with MS and presented by Martha Patt, a 43-year-old El Cerrito, Calif., resident with MS who has practiced yoga to help keep her symptoms in check and her attitude upbeat.
Exercise as an antidote
The women advocate exercise as a way to stave off loss of physical abilities and to maintain mental and emotional well-being.
"Exercise has been my core all my life," said Walker-Haley of Fort Collins. "I'm not going to let my illness dictate the things I can and cannot do."
MS afflicts an estimated 350,000 people in the country and about 5,500 in Colorado. The rate of illness is inexplicably higher here than in other states.
Patt and Walker-Haley have been named Champions of Courage by a 3-year-old national foundation funded by the makers of Betaseron, a medication for MS. As part of the foundation's mission to inspire people with MS, the women received grants to help achieve their goals.
With her $6,000 grant, Patt is traveling the country to show MS patients how to adapt yoga postures, encouraging others to take up the meditative exercise that has helped her cope with chronic pain.
"Disciplining the mind'
"I really believe these simple postures, done on a daily basis, helped me from giving up," Patt, who was diagnosed 17 years ago, said Monday at the yoga gathering at the Fort Collins Senior Center.
Patt and her instructor started a yoga program for people with MS in the San Francisco Bay area and have produced a video and teaching manual to demonstrate how physical postures and breathing can help clear and focus the mind.
The Fort Collins workshop was their first outside the Bay area; another "Yoga for MS" presentation will begin at 1 p.m. Wednesday at the Washington Park Recreation Center in Denver.
"Disciplining the mind is helpful when you have MS, because the symptoms are always there, but you need to set them aside so they don't drive your life," Patt said as class participants learned simple movements and breathing exercises.
Walker-Haley bought a specialized tandem bicycle with her $4,000 Champions of Courage grant. To train for the upcoming MS150, she lifts weights and rides a stationary recumbent bicycle; she and her husband have advanced to 26-mile training rides on their tandem bike.
"I feel so free when I'm riding," said Walker-Haley, who has an athlete's tan, trim and muscular physique. "I'm amazed at how training for this event has changed my spirit. I feel like I'm doing something with my husband that's active, and I'm really getting that jolt of being an athlete even though I'm not the same."
Eric Simons, a Boulder mountaineer with MS, inspired the Champions of Courage program with a 1999 climb of 22,841-foot Mount Aconcagua in Argentina. He said MS patients in the past were discouraged from physical activity, but experts now realize that exercise can slow the disease's progression while boosting self-esteem.
"MS pushes you in a different direction," Simons said during the yoga class. "But that doesn't mean it's the end."