Exercise can be a real challenge for some people with multiple sclerosis (MS). Common symptoms like weakness, numbness, and balance issues can make physical activity difficult, and maybe a little intimidating. But exercise is as important for people with MS as it is for everyone else. A good exercise routine can even ease symptoms.

Many people with MS find that water therapy is the easiest and most rewarding way to stay physically active. The buoyancy of water helps to support weak limbs, making them feel lighter. Water also provides resistance, which helps strengthen muscles. People with MS may find it easier to stand in the water than on dry land, and there’s a lower risk of injury due to a fall.

Health Benefits of Swimming

Swimming is an aerobic activity, so it’s good for your heart as well as your muscles. People with MS may find they have an increased range of motion in the water. There’s a lot less weight on your joints when your body is submerged. Swimming also can improve endurance, flexibility, and balance.

Fatigue is the most common symptom of MS, and often the most debilitating. According to the Cleveland Clinic, regular exercise, especially aerobic exercise, can improve MS-related fatigue. 

Swimming also can reduce pain. In a 2011 study, a 20-week aquatic exercise program resulted in “significant pain reduction” in MS patients. Study participants also noted improvement in symptoms like fatigue, depression, and disability. An earlier study found that aquatic exercise enhanced quality of life for MS patients.

Non-Swimmers Can Benefit from Water Therapy Too

If you’re not confident in your swimming abilities or you just don’t like dunking your head underwater, there are plenty of other ways to exercise in the pool. Many communities offer aquatic classes that focus on stretching, balancing, and muscle strengthening.

Your doctor or physical therapist may be able to recommend a specific water therapy program that includes leg lifts, marching, and use of resistance equipment. Many hydrotherapy classes are led by licensed physical therapists who specialize in helping people with MS or other disabilities.

Depending on your physical abilities, you may not need a class to get your pool exercise. Playing in the pool with the kids or grandkids can be great exercise—and a lot of fun.    

Water Therapy for Body and Spirit

Ai Chi is a type of mind/body water therapy created in Japan. It’s a sequence of movements in the water that combine deep breathing and slow, broad movements. It’s thought to promote better balance and flexibility as well as strength and focus. Performed in a group setting, Ai Chi blends a sense of community with healthy physical activity.

Besides all that fatigue-fighting exercise, a little time in a lounge chair by the water can help ease stress and help you feel relaxed all over. Hanging around the pool is also a great way to meet people. Joining a swimmers group or water therapy class is a wonderful opportunity to become part of a support system.

Multiple Sclerosis and Body Temperature

Some people with MS experience a temporary flare-up (pseudo-exacerbation) of symptoms when they become overheated. This can happen in a hot tub, sauna, in high temperatures, or even in a hot bath. If you’ve ever had a heat-related flare-up, you should avoid overheated pools and prolonged time in the sun.

On the other hand, a dip in a swimming pool can actually cool your body temperature and help you avoid that exacerbation. According to the National MS Society, 81 to 83 degrees Fahrenheit is a good water temperature. You may have to experiment a bit to find your sweet spot.

When you’re lounging by the pool on a hot day and start to feel overheated, a cool dip may set things right.

Let’s Get Started!

Talk to your doctor before starting if you’re not sure you’re physically able to handle swimming or exercising in the pool. They may be able to refer you to a physical therapist or a class with qualified instructors.

Exercise benefits your bodies and your sense of wellbeing. When symptoms of MS interfere with your ability to exercise, water therapy can help you take control again. Whatever type of water therapy you choose, the positive feelings associated with the experience may be just the motivation you’ve been seeking.