Exercise & MS

I’ve had an on and off love affair with exercise. I’ve spent months, sometimes years, religiously going to the gym three times a week. And, I’ve gone a year or longer without stepping inside a gym. I’ve done yoga daily, and then abandoned it for years. Leading up to my 40th birthday, in 2019, I rekindled my relationship with exercise. It began out of obligation, and, eventually, turned into love. But, once the pandemic hit, I abruptly ended the relationship, cutting off all ties. And, instead of replacing the gym with at-home workouts, I stopped moving altogether and chose, instead, junk food and copious amounts of alcohol.

At the end of 2020, I learned I may have MS. Experts and people with MS recommend exercise to help manage symptoms. They say you should walk, move your body, lift weights, do yoga, do what you can. For some people that may be short walks, for others it may be running or lifting weights.

But, everyone also tells you to rest, listen to your body, and not overdo it. Spoon theory is the idea that when you have a chronic disease, you start each day with a certain number of spoons. The spoons represent your energy. Every task takes up spoons: taking a shower, going to work, making dinner. Once the spoons are gone, you aren’t able to do anything else. So, how could I fit in exercise? What would I have to give up? These ideas felt very confusing and contradictory to me.

Pre-COVID, the gym was my go-to for exercise. But, gyms were closed. And, when they re-opened, I didn’t feel comfortable going. I had gone for some walks with my son in the summer, before my first MS symptoms. But, in the winter, that wasn’t an attractive option.

I did yoga a few times early on. I remember getting dizzy and having issues with balance poses, which had never been an issue before. I got really hot and had to turn off the heat, open the back door, and drink water to cool down. In the winter. I’m always freezing, so that was very weird for me. I wasn’t sure if it was the MS, the medication, or just lack of exercise. I felt better after doing yoga, but I didn’t stick with it. Partly because it felt harder than I remembered, and partly because it’s exhausting fighting for the TV with a seven-year-old and getting him to be quiet and not touch me long enough to actually do yoga. But, mostly, because I was tired.

I felt tired all the time. Listen to your body, I thought. Rest. For months, I rested.

I started going for occasional short walks in the spring. My left toes would get numb after a short walk. Sometimes my left foot would start to hurt. And, while I wasn’t physically tired, my body would get stiff and heavy, like I’d had an intense leg day at the gym.

I continued to read articles about MS, listen to podcasts, and read posts in MS forums. Exercise was consistently recommended. Some protocols recommend thirty minutes a day to fight the effects of MS. I’d noticed my legs were getting stiffer. The muscles felt tight and contracted, for no reason. When I sat at my desk for a long time, I walked with a slight limp when I first got up. I should exercise more, I thought. The weather was getting warmer. So, I started going for daily walks. Well, maybe not daily, but that was the goal.

The first few days it took thirty minutes to walk a mile. My legs were stiff and sore and I walked slowly. But, over the days, my pace increased and my legs felt more “normal.” Some days, I walk a mile in fifteen minutes. My legs move in a smooth, fluid motion. My feet comfortably peel off the pavement. Other days, my stride is rigid and my legs feel tight. My feet ache, my toes are numb, and I have to concentrate on how to move them along the sidewalk. Other times, I start off with energy and an effortless stride, and end with a slow, intentional walk. I think it is helping my body, but it’s too soon to tell if it’s the walking or just the natural ebb and flow of my body. Regardless, being outside in the sun, looking at nature, is relaxing, peaceful, and energizing.

Just like diet, exercise is something I can do, on my own, to fight MS. It’s free. And, it has no negative side effects. So, I’m going to try to consistently exercise, even if it’s just a walk here and ten minutes of yoga there. My past relationships with exercise have been rocky, but hopefully MS will keep me motivated. Plus, exercise helps fight against the biggest MS trigger: stress.

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