Exercise

However MS affects you, there are exercises that can be helpful to stay as healthy and fit as possible and to improve some of your symptoms and their effects.

People taking part in an exercise class

This page covers:

For more information, download our MS Essentials publication on exercise and physiotherapy.

Benefits of exercise

Exercising regularly will keep your body working to its full potential. To make it easier, it is important to find exercise that suits you – something you enjoy and find worthwhile.

Exercise can:

  • improve the overall health of people with milder MS
  • help people with more severe MS to stay as mobile and active as possible
  • help some people manage MS symptoms and decrease the risk of heart disease
  • improve muscle strength and fitness, helping with mobility or weakness problems
  • help manage weight control, especially when combined with a healthy, well-balanced diet

By finding the right exercises, perhaps with the help of a physiotherapist, you can stop problems becoming worse than they need to be.

Getting fit and keeping fit helps the body and mind to stay as healthy as possible. 

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Relapses and exercising

There is no evidence that exercise makes MS worse in the long-term, or that exercising causes relapses.

However, if you're having a relapse you shouldn’t try to carry on exercising until after symptoms have ‘levelled out’ and you have completed any steroid treatment. A physiotherapist can help with getting you back into a routine as you recover from the relapse, through rehabilitation.

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Types of exercise 

There is no single exercise that could be called an ‘MS exercise’. MS affects people in different ways, so what’s suitable will vary from person to person.

Exercises might include:

  • Strengthening exercises
  • Aerobic exercises (such as cycling, running or rowing)
  • Stretching (helps keep muscles supple and relaxed)
  • Range-of-motion (moving the arms, legs, wrists and ankles in wide reaching circular patterns.)
  • Passive stretching (involves a physiotherapist or carer helping to move your arms or legs to create a stretch and move the joints).
  • Posture exercises help keep your feet, knees, pelvis, shoulders and head properly aligned, to reduce strain on the muscles and bones in the body.

If your situation changes, you might want to try a new sport, adjust what you do already, or work with a physiotherapist to discover specific exercises that could benefit you.

There is a huge range of sports available to people of all abilities. Exercising doesn’t have to mean playing a sport – it includes things like walking, housework, swimming, gardening and dancing.

The MS Society's library has exercise DVDs to borrow - just call 0208 438 0799.

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Exercising and MS symptoms

Fatigue

Exercise can bring improvements in strength, fitness and mood – all of which might help you to manage your fatigue.

Balance and walking

Carefully designed physiotherapy programmes, outdoor walking and aerobics can help people improve their balance and walking.

Muscle spasms or stiffness

Person massaging their stiff knee

Physiotherapy, including stretching and range-of motion exercises is a key part of treating and managing muscle spasms or stiffness.

Yoga may also improve your flexibility and reduce muscle stiffness.

Research has also found some benefits from t’ai chi exercise, including reduced muscle stiffness.

Bladder and bowel

A continence advisor, MS nurse or physiotherapist can help you with pelvic floor exercises for bladder control.

Bowel problems are less common, but can be awkward and distressing.

Keeping physically active may help some people with bowel control. One study found that people with MS had improvements in their bowel functions after following a 15-week course of aerobic training.

Low mood, anxiety or depression

If issues such as low mood, anxiety or depression arise, exercise may help. Regular aerobic exercise has been shown to be beneficial in relieving mild to moderate depression.

T’ai chi has also been reported to offer social and emotional benefits. 

On top of this, exercise is often a good opportunity to meet new people.

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Tips on starting exercise

If you have not exercised for a while, or are thinking of significantly increasing the amount you do, speak to your GP beforehand, to be sure what you do is safe. Your GP may recommend you see a physiotherapist.

  • Start slowly with any new regime. Don’t try to do too much, too soon. This lets your body get used to the new activity and also helps you judge whether that choice of exercise is comfortable for you. Over time, you will be able to gauge what your limits are.
  • Warm up, with gentle stretching, before exercise. If you are doing aerobic exercise, you should start slowly, to build the heart rate gradually. To avoid muscles becoming tight and stiff, stretching should also be done as a ‘cooldown’ afterwards.

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MS and heat

Many people with MS – though not all – are sensitive to heat. Some people adjust the exercise they choose; others find effective ways to stay cool and keep effects to a minimum.

Here are some practical things you can try if you are heat sensitive:

  • Avoid overly hot swimming pools. As a rough guide, try to find a pool where the water temperature is below 29 degrees centigrade.
  • Break up exercise sessions into smaller sections, with regular breaks
  • Drinking ice drinks, wearing a ‘cooling vest’ and taking a cool bath before exercising might help you to exercise for longer.
  • Keep the exercise space well ventilated. A fan might help. Be careful if applying ice or cold packs directly to the skin, or when using cooling garments or cold water to cool the body. MS can cause changes to the way you experience temperature, distorting the feeling that would normally tell you when something is too hot or too cold - so take care  not to damage the skin. Your GP, physiotherapist, occupational therapist or MS nurse can help make sure cooling techniques you try are not harmful.

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Costs

A physiotherapist can help you find ways to get the same physical workout at home as you might achieve in a members’ gym.

Many local sports centres have reduced rates if you receive benefits such as Disability Living Allowance or PIP.

In some areas, doctors prescribe exercise as well as medicines and arrange for you to exercise for free at a local fitness centre.

There are many local initiatives called Inclusive Fitness Initiatives (IFI) that could help you to access fitness. 

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Page last updated: 04 Mar 2014

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