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MS and Exercise: The Tortoise Wins

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MS and Exercise: The Tortoise Wins

MS and Exercise: The Tortoise Wins

Gary Pinder and his family, staying active at the beach.

Gary Pinder

Exercise and MS are often by definition conflicting. Between fatigue, pain, movement restrictions, balance issues, heat sensitivity and other familiar MS symptoms, exercise is the last priority on your list.  

During the course of living with MS for twenty-two years, I have experienced many relapses and periods of significant physical disability. Today, while I live in constant awareness of the physical and cognitive impacts of MS on my body, I am able to move and function with only limited restriction. What has helped me achieve this is one-hundred percent medication compliance, taking advantage of the constantly caring advice of some of the best MS specialists in the world, a healthy diet, a peaceful family life and a healthy (pun intended) degree of luck. A last primary factor in this outcome – I have stayed in motion through frequent exercise.

The natural process of our disease will have its victories on a regular basis by causing new and often permanent damage to our brain or spinal cords. This damage will restrict our ability to move and function. Physical inactivity over time will only further accelerate the process of losing our ability to move and function. To slow down what MS must do to us, you must stay in motion. It is that simple.

So, what is the best way to stay in motion?

In my experience, what is more important than the type of exercise you may choose to perform is your personal enjoyment of it. If you commit to participating in a particular form of exercise but do not enjoy it, you will not continue. For me, I have re-connected in a non-competitive way to two sports from my youth. Re-discover something from your youth and find a way to participate in it once more. Or take up something which you have always wanted to try but have been unable. It could be as simple as taking regular walks in local parks with family or friends. If a wheelchair has entered your life, utilize a liberating “third wheel”. I know of someone with MS who lives in DC who exercises through constantly improving and tending a small garden.

For how long and how often should you exercise?

Heat drains my energy, hence summers for me are a period of low physical activity. When the heat has passed, I start exercising slowly and gradually build up over time. I first start with a low amount of exercise every few days. Then I add more time, and then I add more frequency. As I do this, I am intently listening to my body. It will tell me if I have added too much time or frequency. I always obey it. Always be aware of your physical limits. Exceeding those limits can risk heightened MS activity. If I am consistent in my habits, over time those physical limits will rise.

How do you stay motivated?

There are days when I feel like surrendering to the forces of nature. I have built a deeply emotional mechanism to constantly give me the motivation I need to stay focused. I call it my “forcing function”. A year after my diagnosis, our first child was born. As I held her on that first morning of her life, I made her a silent promise I knew would not be easy to keep - to walk into her high school graduation without any form of assistance. I made her newborn brother the same promise two years later. During the next 18 years there were periods when I thought that keeping such promises may not be possible. Keeping my forcing function kept me motivated. I have kept both promises. I have since made myself further silent promises – to walk into their college graduations without assistance. And I have made myself one more silent promise – if my daughter one day chooses to do so, to walk her down the aisle without any assistance.

Where can you begin?

An MS support group of which I am a member walks on fully accessible trails within different parks in the Baltimore area at 10am on the third Saturday of each month. We happily walk at the pace of the slowest person, willingly stopping to rest on a park bench whenever needed. We walk only as far as the group is able. We are tortoises, and proud of it. Our simple goal is only to stay in motion – and get to know each other better. We would love for others to join us. Please contact Lori at weatheringthestorms2014@gmail.com for more information if you would like to walk with us.

Gary maintains the @MSThrivers Twitter account in which has cataloged over 1,000 stories of people thriving in their own way with MS.