February 11, 2022
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Research has long shown how exercise improves overall quality of life. From cognitive and emotional benefits to myriad physical benefits, exercise is a staple in many people’s treatment plans, including those with multiple sclerosis (MS).
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), exercise improves overall health and can reduce the risk of various chronic diseases. But for me, the question remained: What kind of exercise is best for MS?
A good workout is often sticky and sweaty. When heart rate rises, it’s as if you can actually feel those calories burning. While some yearn to literally feel the burn, my MS causes me to lean toward low impact exercises that keep me cool; yoga, tai chi, Pilates, and the like.
While I found comfort in my established fitness routine, I heard water fitness was especially touted for MS. Research supports that water-based fitness and aquatic exercise have enhanced the quality of life for those with MS.
Jumping in the pool is a recommended style of exercise? I had to know more. Aqua aerobics had always been on my list, but I had yet to dip my toes, literally, in the aqua fitness world.
I don’t know why I avoided it for so long. Finding an available pool that hosts this class was the first challenge, and when I finally tracked one down, I had to convince myself to slap my suit on and take the plunge.
I soon found myself in a pool of senior golden girls, pretty intimidated that I was the youngest in the group. They seemed so confident and collected as they chatted with one another before class. I assumed their attitude toward me might be aloof, but instead, they welcomed me to their Aqua Aerobics Silver Sneakers class with gusto and warmth. I immediately felt comfortable among them and tiptoed into the chill of the water.
Jumping around to acclimate, I settled into a humble spot toward the back of the group — the newbie row. At 5’1” in stature, the water level was at my neck. The instructor quickly wiggled her index finger at me, the universal “come here” gesture.
I waddled over to the front row, where she explained my height was far too short to work comfortably in the back. She said the water must reach at least your shoulders to plant both feet on the pool floor and feel grounded.
The following hour felt like a fun dance class. We jumped, we swayed, we used water weights to work on our strength. What usually makes me feel hot and exhausted instead made me feel refreshed and invigorated. How could I do so much that I usually can’t manage on solid land? One class and I was officially hooked on aqua aerobics.
Enjoyment aside, the list of benefits from my new favorite form of exercise goes on and on.
That feeling of unsurmountable droop you get mid-workout — it’s the worst. It’s discouraging when your mind wants to keep pushing through, but your body just can’t keep up.
Because of my MS, when my internal temperature climbs, I’m hot, bothered, and become mentally and physically exhausted. Overheating often results in long lasting fatigue for the rest of the day, so a challenging morning workout will likely wear me out until I go to sleep.
Exercising in water allows for an intense workout that’s ever-so-subtle. Heat flows away from the body even though you’re burning mega calories. Since the water is cooler than your body temperature, it feels as though you never break a sweat.
On a warm day, when my body temperature is high, there’s nothing better than the feeling of cool water on my scalp. Don’t be afraid to take the plunge. It’s glorious.
I found my strength and agility improved quickly over a few sessions of this aerobic exertion. Performing a range of slow, articulated movements followed by quick bursts of action, allowed me to work my range of motion. The movements I could do in water were also larger than the ones I could do on land. For example, I typically reached farther, circled my legs wider, and moved faster.
While the water relieved pressure from my joints, I was able to develop flexibility too. Using noodles and foam weights to create resistance allowed an easy way to isolate muscles without strain.
Studies show that being in water also encourages blood flow in the body. This is extremely beneficial for those with MS.
Decreasing blood pressure and overall heart rate has a direct relation to brain health. High blood pressure correlates directly with the number of lesions in our brain that can potentially advance our disease.
Accessing my center of gravity proves challenging with MS. On solid ground, my stance is sometimes wobbly and erratic. With support from the surrounding water, my body was able to hold poses for longer. The multi-directional, natural resistance of the water helped me find stability in my movements.
It was easier to access my plumb line, or body alignment, as I was able to ground myself for longer periods of time. I found myself making moves I’d otherwise avoid in traditional aerobic classes. Movements I’d normally consider risky, like extending and elevating my limbs, felt accessible to me in water.
While this workout was everything I needed it to be, I was wary about certain moments in the pool. Because people with MS have an increased risk of infection-related hospitalizations and infection-related mortality, it’s important to prevent cuts and nicks, like stubbing my fragile toes on the cement floor of the pool. I have an overwhelming fear of a gnarly wound going unnoticed and turning into a dangerous infection.
Pro tip: Wear a pair of trusty water shoes to protect your feet in the pool.
It’s also important to note that when you are first stepping out of the pool, gravity can feel different. After one leg marched out of the buoyancy of the water, my body felt heavy and my balance teetered. The downward force of the earth was magnified after just an hour of being submerged, and it pulled me toward the floor.
Pro tip: When exiting the pool, hang on to that railing tight, and give yourself a few minutes to adjust. It can be a doozy.
Overall, aqua aerobics welcomed my confidence back around my physical abilities and my capacity to go hard or exercise vigorously, something I had never been able to accomplish on land. Water immersion reduced my fear and risk of falling, and I felt safe and supported.
The most significant way it benefited me was the subtle mental focus and clarity it gifted me throughout the day. Cog fog feels like a thing of the past when I exercise, and cardio results feel attainable when I move in water.
I understand firsthand how intimidating a new form of exercise can be, especially with MS. But I guarantee, once you take the plunge, you will be counting down the minutes until you can dive back into the water.
Fact checked on February 11, 2022
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