Exercise and Its Positive Impact on Multiple Sclerosis

Benefits of Exercising in MS

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Even though the symptoms of multiple sclerosis (MS) vary from person to person, experiencing any one of them (e.g., fatigue, muscle spasms/weakness, and mobility issues, to name a few) can be downright brutal.

This is why experts are diligently working to find therapies that, in addition to an MS disease-modifying medication, can further improve a person's symptoms or even, perhaps, help slow down their disease course.

One such therapy that has consistently been found to be beneficial for those living with MS is exercise.

Benefits of Exercise in MS

Aside from the "feel-good" chemicals (called endorphins) released during exercise, research suggests that engaging in cardiorespiratory activities (for example, bicycling or swimming) can improve muscle strength, tiredness, cognition (memory and thinking skills), and breathing function in those with MS.

In addition, progressive resistance training—a form of exercise that focuses on building muscle strength—has been found to not only improve muscle strength but also fatigue and mood in some people with MS. 

Flexibility exercises, which stretch the muscles and tendon to their full length, have been found in people with MS to help them maintain balance, reduce spasticity, and enhance joint range of motion. 

Flexibility exercises, while sometimes overlooked, are especially important, considering balance and walking problems affect approximately 50 to 80% of all people with MS.

Even more, an unfortunate complication of balance and gait dysfunction is falling. Research suggests that over 50% percent of people with MS fall at least once each year.

Other symptoms or MS-related complications that regular exercise may benefit include:

  • Improving bladder and bowel function
  • Preventing the loss of bone density (called osteoporosis)
  • Reducing depression
  • Improving social functioning and quality of life

Lastly, it's important to keep in mind that, besides benefitting your MS health, there are a number of other "positives" to engaging in a regular exercise routine.

Research has found that moderate and/or vigorous exercise decreases your risk of obesity, heart disease, stroke, depression, and certain types of cancer. It can also reduce stress and anxiety, and improve sleep.

Exercise and Brain Structure

While there are definite symptom benefits to exercising if you or a loved one has MS, the jury is still out on whether exercise can positively alter the brains of those living with MS. More research is needed to draw any definite conclusions.

Exploring Your Exercise Options

In order to reap the benefits of exercise for your MS and overall health, you do not necessarily have to buy a gym membership or pull out your dusty weights or old treadmill. Instead, consider more stimulating, sociable physical activities that are also less expensive—a double bonus.

For example, yoga and tai chi can improve balance and coordination. Likewise, for cardiorespiratory exercises, consider dancing, hiking, swimming, power walking, or joining an organized sport, such as tennis or basketball. Simple everyday activities like gardening and household chores can also get your heart pumping.

For muscle strengthening-exercises, if you are in a wheelchair, consider doing tricep extensions. If you are ambulatory, do squats. Both of these exercises can be performed within the comfort of your own home.

Tips to Follow When Engaging in Exercise

Before embarking on an exercise regimen, it's sensible to first speak with your doctor to ensure your workouts are safe and right for you.

It may also be a good idea to see a physical therapist who has experience working with people with MS. A physical therapist can help you avoid injuries (stretching beforehand is key), as well as come up with exercises that you enjoy and that won't exacerbate your unique MS symptoms.

It's also prudent to keep these following tips in mind if you are heat-sensitive, meaning your MS symptoms tend to worsen or be exacerbated by a rise in your body temperature (which is common):

  • Schedule your exercise workouts in the early morning when the temperature is cooler and your body temperature is lower.
  • Take a tepid bath a half an hour prior to exercising.
  • Stay hydrated by drinking cold water throughout your workouts.
  • Use cooling devices while exercising (e.g., cooling vest, cold packs, or spray bottles).
  • Wear light-weight, breathable clothing.
  • If exercising indoors, ensure the facility or room is air-conditioned.

A Word From Verywell

Doctors used to instruct their patients with MS to avoid exercise out of concern that it would trigger a relapse or worsen underlying symptoms.

We now know that exercise—when performed under the right conditions and when tailored to a person's unique needs and disability level—is actually important for a person's MS and overall health.

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Article Sources

  1. Halabchi F, Alizadeh Z, Sahraian MA, Abolhasani M. Exercise prescription for patients with multiple sclerosis; potential benefits and practical recommendations. BMC Neurol. 2017 Sep 16;17(1):185. doi: 10.1186/s12883-017-0960-9

  2. Kjolhede T, Vissing K, Dalgas U. Multiple sclerosis and progressive resistance training: a systematic review.Mult Scler. 2012 Sep;18(9):1215-28. doi:10.1177/1352458512437418

  3. Cameron MH, Nilsagard Y. Balance, gait, and falls in multiple sclerosis.Handb Clin Neurol. 2018;159:237-50. doi:10.1016/B978-0-444-63916-5.00015-X

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