When I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2006 at age 37, I unwittingly entered the octagon to face off against the five stages of grief mano a mano. Dave v. DABDA. Spoiler: it wasn’t pretty. It never is.
Denial worked wonders for a couple days until it became pretty clear it wasn’t a pinched nerve or Lyme disease (haha, and you thought you were the only one). Anger threw me an arm bar and had me tapping out in less than a week. Bargaining? Urg, I had no chips to bargain with. Depression had me throwing a rager of a pity party, but then I discovered few people like going to pity parties since they are tremendous buzz kills. That just left acceptance.
But how could I accept the diagnosis of a disease that portended to systematically erase every active passion I enjoyed doing? I played tennis, basketball, baseball, soccer. I was a snowboarder, a cyclist, a hiker, a Frisbee golfer (okay, I kinda sucked at regular golf). But an MSer—an active MSer? Me?
A decade ago the MS landscape on the internet was a depressing morass of woe-is-me blogs and dire predictions. The more I researched, the more I didn’t like what I was finding. The robust and varied support networks found today in the MS community simply didn’t exist. Valuable online MS resources were in their infancy.
So at the time it got me thinking. Why the hell not me? Why couldn’t I be that active MSer? And if I was having problems coming to terms with this new normal, I reasoned other like-minded active misfits with MS were having these problems, too. So the week I was officially diagnosed I also started ActiveMSers.org (www.ActiveMSers.org), a website to help and motivate others with this disease to stay active—physically, intellectually, and socially—regardless of disability.
Ever since then, I’ve made it my goal to practice what I preach, faithfully exercising most days—stretching, cardio, strength. Now before you roll your eyes and harrumph about how easy folks with “mild MS” have it and that they should shut their pie holes about treks up Kilimanjaro, um, I’m a 5 percenter. About 1 in 20 MSers have aggressive disease and I won that inauspicious lottery. I started using a walker three years after I was diagnosed and today employ a host of aids to get around. So how the heck can a gimpy dude run a website promoting MS fitness, much less work out so vigorously? It comes down to following the five elegantly straightforward stages of exercise enlightenment—essentially MS exercise hacks—that I’ve developed over the years with the help of MS physical therapists, professional athletes, fellow active MSers, and a healthy dollop of experimentation.
5 Stages of Exercise Enlightenment
Step 1) Find your exercise mojo. I know it’s there. You know it’s there. That charmed power inside you that wants to get fit. No exercise program is going to succeed long term unless you find that mojo. While I’ve conveniently gathered 100+ MS exercise studies for your reading pleasure on ActiveMSers’ forums, I’m not going to lecture you about how awesome exercise is for MS. You know that, just like you know that crystal meth is bad for your teeth or that pointy metal lawn darts were a bad, bad idea. I’m not going to guilt you, either. No, you have to want it. You have to will it.
Step 2) Adapt to your limitations. Yeah, I know you have MS, which automatically makes it harder to exercise. Maybe it’s fatigue, crummy balance, bad eyesight, wonky legs, or [fill in the blank]. I get it, really I do. But unless you are completely bedbound and communicate via blinking and flaring your nostrils, there are ways to exercise your body with adaptation. Yes, you might look a bit goofy flailing your arms doing seated jumping jacks—I know I do—but get over it. Your health is too important.
Step 3) Channel beast mode. When you exercise, don’t go through the motions; don’t half-ass it. You’ve carved out valuable time in your day to work out, so maximize it. The most efficient way to get there is to switch on beast mode. It’s not just high effort, serious training, but the dare-try-to-stop-me attitude that you can conquer anything, including MS. Believe it. Personally I’ve found loud music and cursing helps (so have exercise researchers). Sorry Mom, I’m really not talking about you!
Step 4) Strive for consistency. Let’s get this out of the way right now: you will fall off the exercise wagon at some point. We all do. And that’s a-okay. The trick is to get back to it. Don’t let a few days (or a few weeks) of down time destroy the goodwill you’ve built with your body. This is a lifetime commitment, just like this crappy disease, barring a cure. Start small. Commit to stretching 10 minutes a day. Add in 5 minutes of cardio. Then some weights. Hit a relapse speedbump? Just repeat steps 1-3: rediscover your mojo, make new adaptations, and then crank up beast mode. You can so do this.
Step 5) Celebrate accomplishments. I’m not talking about cracking open a beer and a bag of Cheetos after every exercise session. But getting fit is big friggin’ deal when you have multiple sclerosis. Be proud of what you are doing. It’s not a fluke that your fatigue is diminishing or that your cog fog isn’t as bad as it was or that you can now touch your toes despite your tight hamstrings (my incredible story on that accomplishment is here). No, this is you, this is all you. Acknowledge that. Celebrate that. If that means beer and Cheetos, I’m cool with that.
I’ve got a motto: MS is BS—multiple sclerosis is beatable someday. And when that day comes, we need to have the healthiest body and mind available, and exercising is a huge part of that. Please join me. Be active, stay fit and keep exploring!
5 Ultimate Exercise Hacks for MS first appeared on Healthline. Here is that version, which unbelievably does not include mentions of crystal meth or lawn darts.