8 Exercises for People with Multiple Sclerosis

If you suffer from multiple sclerosis (MS), you're far from alone. According to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, more than 2.3 million people around the world are thought to be living with the chronic disease.

With MS—which has no known cause or cure—the body's immune system essentially attacks the central nervous system, jumbling communications between the brain and body. The immune system breaks down myelin, which is the protective material that "cushions" nerve fibers in the brain and spinal cord, slowing down or even stopping the transmission of messages along the nerve.  

Depending on which of the four types of MS is diagnosed, symptoms can range from mild to debilitating and can progress at different rates. Some of the most common include loss of mobility and coordination, muscle stiffness and spasms, numbness or weakness in the limbs, pain, fatigue and dizziness. This might sound like a pretty tough obstacle to exercise, but experts agree that staying active is one of the best tools for keeping symptoms at bay.

"I find that daily exercise of some sort energizes me and improves my outlook, especially on gray days," says member ELEYNE. "In fact, I can really tell when I don’t exercise because my stamina goes down quickly, and I lose muscle tone."

Vivian Eisenstadt, physical therapist and owner of Vivie Therapy, says the "use it or lose it" concept especially applies to those with MS. "When you stop moving your body, all the other systems are compromised," she says. "It is easier for people with MS to get extremely tight and increase the progression of their disease due to all the secondary effects of lack of exercise, such as circulatory or urinary problems. Exercise can improve function and mood while slowing progression. It also helps to keep the circulatory, muscular and lymph systems active, as well as to sustain joint range of motion."

Rui Li, a personal trainer and owner of New York Personal Training, specializes in corrective exercise for post-rehab and injury prevention. When training clients who have a condition that affects the nervous system, musculature and motor control, she says it's all about how advanced the disease is and how much they have to regress back to basic beginner exercises.

"For every exercise newbie, we start with the same foundation, so the exercises themselves wouldn't necessarily be different from those given to healthy individuals, but they would need to be modified depending on how unsteady they feel when they use their limbs," she says.

Exercise Tips from Members with MS

"On days when I'm hurting or haven't slept well, I just cut back on the intensity or duration of my workout. And I make sure I drink plenty of water; even slight dehydration weakens me. Don't allow yourself to get overheated. Use a damp towel to cool yourself if necessary." - ELEYNE

"One thing that has helped me is to try to not think of it as an "all or nothing" thing. The whole, "go hard or go home," or "no pain, no gain" is harmful thinking for me. Just showing up and doing a moderate workout—for me, that is a little weight lifting and walking on the treadmill—is a great and successful workout." – MNREADER

"I break up my workouts throughout the day with a walk in the morning, kettlebell swings midday and a Physique 57 DVD in the evening. I make exercise a big part of the day, but by breaking it up, I am able to maintain my mobility better." - TIME2BLOOM4ME

"I try to walk my dogs at the dog park three or four times a week and use a cane when my balance isn't so good. I think the most important thing is to keep moving; whether it's a walk or stretching a band between two legs, everything counts." - NAPAVALLEYNANA

"Know and trust yourself, especially regarding balance and falls prevention. Avoid causing painfully sore muscles -- pain isn't gain. Pain is pain. Enough is when you feel like you've done what you can do safely and still rebound in time to do the next thing in your life." – HELIX82

8 Exercises for People with MS

Whether you’re just starting an exercise program for the first time or you’re a fitness enthusiast looking for a modified routine, these low-impact exercises are safe and effective for anyone with limited mobility.

Modified Squats

From personal trainer Rui Li, owner of New York Personal Training

Since MS causes communication problems between the brain and the rest of the body, practicing these foundation movements means encouraging motor control.

  • Start from a seated position, with back straight, arms straight out and trunk leaning slightly forward.
  • Lift to a standing position, squeezing the glutes.
  • Slowly return to the seated position and repeat 10-12 times.

From Danielle Girdano, Certified Master Personal Trainer

These are particularly effective to strengthen the entire abdominal group. When the abdominal muscles are strong, they naturally support the back and improve posture. The stronger the core, the stronger stabilization a person has.
  • Start by on your stomach with your palms on the floor next to your shoulders, with your feet and legs together and toes down.
  • Lift your body up, resting on your forearms. Keep your weight evenly balanced between upper and lower body, keeping it as straight as possible. Don't let your hips rise or fall.
  • For beginners, start with one set of 20-30 seconds, building up to two to three sets as you become stronger and more comfortable with the exercises.
Forward Lunges

From Danielle Girdano, Certified Master Personal Trainer

This exercise strengthens the large leg muscles that improve stabilization as you walk, as well as balance.
  • Stand with your feet about hip-width apart with the toes pointed forward. If necessary, place your hand on a chair or wall to help with balance.
  • Step forward with one leg and lower your body to 90 degrees at both knees. Keep your weight on your heels and don’t allow your knees to cross the plane of your toes.
  • Push up and back to the starting position to complete one rep.
  • Repeat 12 reps on one leg, then switch to the other leg. Start with one set, then gradually build up to two to three sets as you build strength.
Wall Pushups
From personal trainer Rui Li, owner of New York Personal Training

Paying close attention to small details and perfecting these movements forces the brain to find ways to synchronize specific muscles.
  • Place your hands on a wall with your body leaning approximately 20-30 degrees.
  • While keeping your abs and glutes tight and your shoulders down, lower your body by bending your elbows.
  • Push back up by exhaling, squeezing the chest and straightening the arms. Fully push through so that your shoulder blades open all the way at the top.
  • Repeat 10-12 times.

From Danielle Girdano, Certified Master Personal Trainer

These stabilize and strengthen the abdominals, glutes and lower back. Again, the more stabilization a person with MS has, the better their long-term health will be.
  • Lie on your back with your knees bent, feet flat on the ground and arms at your sides.
  • Lift your glutes and pelvis into the air, concentrating on squeezing the glutes at the top of the movement. Hold for 45 seconds.
  • Repeat for two to three reps as you feel stronger and more comfortable with the exercise.
From personal trainer Rui Li, owner of New York Personal Training

Learning to control the core and hips is extremely important for everyone, but especially for those who are suffering from MS.
  • Lie down on the floor with legs bent at 90 degrees and perpendicular to the floor.
  • Tuck the tailbone in and draw the abs inward. Press your lower back into the floor.
  • Slowly lower one leg about halfway down, maintaining the bend in the knee, and scoop the tailbone up using the hips and lower abs.
  • Repeat on other side.
  • Repeat for 10 to 12 reps.
Seated Overhead Shoulder Press
From Danielle Girdano, Certified Master Personal Trainer

This exercise helps with everyday living activities, like reaching for dishes, washing hair or retrieving a book from a high shelf.  
  • Start from a seated position, with your back straight and feet slightly wider than hip- distance apart, holding weights on either side of your head.
  • Lift the weights overhead until your arms are straight.
  • Slowly return to the starting position.
  • Start with one set of 10-12 repetitions, working up to 2-3 sets as you become stronger and more comfortable with the exercise.
One-Legged Standing Twists
From personal trainer Lorna Jarrett

This exercise helps to improve posture, balance, hip flexion and dorsiflexion with rotation. The transition challenges dynamic control and the cervical rotation can challenge the vestibular system. The exercise can also be done seated or even without the legs and just the torso.