InsideMS, Winter 2002, Vol. 20, Issue 1
by Nancy Chamberlayne
I am addicted to exercise. As a former competitive runner, physical education teacher, avid jogger, hiker, backpacker, and skier, my life once revolved around sports and recreation. But it’s difficult to find an exercise program that satisfies my craving when I live with fatigue, numbness and tingling sensations, lousy balance, poor leg strength, and both bowel and bladder problems.
Following my diagnosis of MS in 1987, I had to adopt a new approach to being active. Starting low, going slow, and knowing when to rest have become essential.
My search for suitable exercise first paid off with the discovery of yoga. These gentle stretching poses are a perfect fit for my MS. Stretching in the evening reduces the muscle twitching, jerking, and spasms that can disturb my sleep.
As a woman with MS, it’s vital that I keep my bones strong. In 1988, I began lifting weights—light weights while in a seated position, just to build strength. I also wear ankle weights when doing leg lifts—something I can accomplish while hanging on to a secure object.
When I first started yoga and lifting weights, the numbness and tingling in my body would intensify, making me feel like a giant pincushion. But 14 years later, I barely notice this symptom when I’m exercising.
I used to avoid swimming. But no longer able to jog, I’ve had to make swimming an integral part of my life. Swimming is gentle on my body. Besides, in the water I’m graceful, fluid, and light.
When I first started swimming in 1990, I would do a few lengths in the pool, after which I would require a plastic chair in the shower—my legs simply wouldn’t hold me up. Now, 12 years later, I can jog in the water for 40 minutes with the use of a buoyancy belt, and am able to stand upright for my shower. Recently, I’ve reduced the time I water-jog so I can practice walking forward, backward, and sideways. I remove the belt and walk deep enough in the water to maintain my balance. The cool weightless environment of the pool gives me the thrill of increased mobility.
My balance is rotten. I adapted tai chi under an instructor’s guidance, using two feet and a cane. When I start a new tai chi movement it feels incredibly difficult. But what is at first awkward becomes reasonably smooth with practice.
By getting my regular “hit” of exercise over these last 14 years, I have experienced dramatic positive changes in my general health. My leg, arm, and cardiovascular strength have increased. I can walk farther and stand upright longer. My muscles are toned and flexible. I remain at a healthy weight and my energy level has improved. Endorphins are released while exercising; they fight depression, improving my mood.
As an “exercise junkie,” I had to learn how to pace myself. Slow and steady is the way to go. When I water-jog or do tai chi, I don’t count the laps or repetitions. That would be self-defeating. I just move my body for a set amount of time. My motto is: “At my turtle pace.”
I water-jog three times a week, practice tai chi, and lift weights on the days I’m not in the pool, and stretch with yoga every evening. This exercise program, developed and refined over 14 years, works for me. Some addictions can be healthy!
A consistent exercise program to maintain strength and flexibility is wise as well as potentially addicting. But before starting, be sure and talk with your doctor. Getting a referral to a physical therapist is an especially good idea if you have not exercised much in the past. With luck, like the author, you’ll get hooked.
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© 2002 The National Multiple Sclerosis Society