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How to start exercising... and stick to it!

31st August 2021

By Margot Strelan, Physiotherapist

How can exercise help?

Studies show that exercise helps to reduce the impact of many common MS symptoms including fatigue, pain, balance, muscle weakness, and improved bladder and bowel function.

Regular exercise is also great for the mind and brain, not just the body. It can improve your mood, improve symptoms of anxiety and depression, and improve your brain’s performance (brain health and cognitive function).

What is the best exercise for people with MS?

A combination of strength training, cardiovascular (cardio) and stretching is suggested for people with MS. Strengthening exercises can be done using hand weights, machine weights, body weight, resistance bands or water resistance in a swimming pool. Cardio can include walking, running, swimming or bike riding indoors or outdoors. Cardio exercise can also be done seated e.g., boxing and arm cycling.

The most important thing is that you choose exercise activities that you enjoy, as you’ll be more likely to stick with it! The key to reaping the benefits of exercise is consistency – every little bit counts.

New or returning to exercise? Here’s how to get started.

If you are new to exercise or starting again after a relapse or some time off, it’s important to start slowly and gradually build up.

Start by introducing shorter sessions of exercise of 10 to 15 minutes at a time, 2-3 times a week. Once you have a routine you can slowly start to increase the length of time you exercise for and/or the intensity by adding speed or resistance.

Here are some tips to help you get started:

  • Set your intentions – remind yourself why you want to start exercising and make it a priority.
  • Set clear achievable goals for yourself – and a reward for when you achieve your goal!
  • If you have trouble committing to exercise, try booking to attend an exercise class or 1-on-1 classes with an exercise professional.
  • Add exercise to everyday activities (incidental activity); for example, when waiting for the kettle to boil, do some calf raises or sit to stands.
  • Track your progress with a smart watch or with a calendar/diary.
  • Exercise with a friend or family member.
  • Listen to music to get motivated.
  • Create a dedicated and welcoming space to exercise in your home.

How can I minimise fatigue during exercise?

While it may seem counterproductive to wear yourself out with exercise if you experience fatigue, exercise actually helps to improve strength, fitness and mood, and stops muscles from losing strength over time (deconditioning). All these things improve your body’s efficiency and help to manage fatigue in the short and long term.

However, it is possible to exercise too much, so exercise needs to be balanced with rest. Ensure you are getting enough sleep, managing stress and planning your day to take breaks as needed.

It is normal to feel tired during and after exercise, but the level of fatigue experienced shouldn’t interfere with the rest of your activities. If it does, you can experiment with the length of your workouts, alternate between different body parts to give them a chance to recharge and break up exercise into manageable chunks throughout the day.

If heat makes your fatigue worse, make sure you are hydrated and keep cool while exercising by sipping on cold water, exercising in a cool room and wearing cooling garments. Exercising in water can also help to regulate body temperature.

A physiotherapist can help you come up with an exercise plan and reduce the impact of symptoms following a relapse. Contact MS Assist on 1800 812 311 to book an appointment with an MS Physiotherapist.

Sources: Fatigue: An Invisible Symptom of MS, booklet, MS International Federation, 2020; Staying Active with MS, MS Trust UK, A Balancing Act – How to get your exercise routine started, Adam Browne & MS Australia
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How to start exercising... and stick to it!