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How I’m Using ‘Functional Fitness’ to Improve With Multiple Sclerosis

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Always check with your healthcare professional before starting an exercise regime. Pace yourself and start slow if you haven’t been working out regularly. Stop if you feel nauseated, dizzy, have chest pain, an irregular heartbeat or any sharp pains or cramps.

With multiple sclerosis, I’m bad at stairs. On bad days, my numb feet mean that going down is nerve-wracking, looking to make sure my foot is clearing the edge of one stair and is firmly situated on the next one before proceeding with the next step. My muscle weakness means climbing them is a challenge and a workout. At the beginning of every work day, I stand at the base of the long stairwell to my office and groan to myself. I don’t go out for lunch or run errands during the day anymore; if I need to buy stamps or go to the bank, it happens before climbing up those stairs or after I’ve descended them for the day.

On the other hand, I can rock a Russian twist. When the nerve pain in my legs is at its worst, I focus a lot on exercises I can do sitting and lying down, so my core is stronger than the rest of me.

When it is time to choose an exercise routine, I like to do what I’m good at. Give me bird dog exercises and pilates roll-ups, and I’m a happy fitness fanatic. I don’t like doing push-ups and jumping jacks because they make me feel weak, wobbly, uncoordinated. Unfortunately, the best way to get better at something you are bad at is to do it until you get better at it.

It is the foundation of the functional fitness trend: when exercising, instead of lifting weights to build single muscle groups in isolation from the rest, do full-body motions that imitate the actions and movements that are important in real life. Instead of building the vanity muscles that are about how the body looks, this approach to exercise is all about targeting multiple muscle groups simultaneously, including non-visible muscles in the core, and getting the body working together. In this way, what we do at the gym can help us outside of it, when we’re lifting groceries, carrying laundry up and down stairs, getting things off high shelves, or playing with kids or pets.

Functional fitness won’t fix muscle weakness from demyelination, but it can improve balance and coordination, maintain tone in the affected muscles, and strengthen your other muscles to compensate or give you other mobility options. But that does mean I have to do exercises I’m not good at. I want the benefits of push-ups: a strong core; strong triceps, pecs, shoulders; and, most importantly, the ability to catch myself and to push back up off the ground if I fall. Avoiding them is counterproductive, but I’ve got to be careful because my wrists aren’t very strong. Currently, I do push-ups leaning against an indoor window sill and I am trying to work up the overall strength to go down to a box on the floor or push-ups from my knees. But I will not push past my wrists’ comfort, even if keeps me using the window sill for a long time — I will do what I’m bad at, but not what causes pain.

To get better at getting in and out of chairs, sit and stand up a lot. To get better at lifting things, lift more things. And, sadly for me, to get better at stairs, go up and down more stairs. I may have to start doing more midday errands again to give myself more opportunities to do those dreaded stairs more often. Maybe, one day, I’ll get good at stairs again, or at least not have to psych myself up for it every time.

Photo by Filip Mroz on Unsplash

Originally published: April 12, 2019
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