Multiple sclerosis (MS) is a disease in which the immune system attacks the central nervous system. This attack causes the protective sheath around nerves to become damaged and can lead to a range of symptoms.

In most people with MS, symptoms get worse during flare-ups and then improve. In some cases, the symptoms of numbness and tingling, blurred vision, dizziness, and pain worsen over time.

It’s also common for people with MS to gain weight due to their symptoms. MS causes fatigue, making you feel too exhausted for physical activity. The pain and dizziness can also affect your energy levels when it comes to exercising. Symptoms of depression are also common for people with MS. This can lead to emotional eating, causing weight gain and loss.

Weight fluctuations may also be due to MS treatment. Steroid therapy is often prescribed to decrease inflammation, and it can cause weight gain. It’s important to reach a healthy weight and maintain it. Being overweight or underweight can worsen MS symptoms. Read on to learn how to maintain a healthy weight.

Exercise is beneficial for people with MS, whether they want to lose or gain weight. While gaining weight is more common with MS, weight loss and muscle wasting can occur in advanced and serious cases. People who experience muscle loss usually have symptoms severe enough to limit mobility. Exercising and eating well can help you avoid losing muscle mass.

Fatigue and MS symptoms, such as body temperature shifts, can make exercising regularly more difficult. But there are certain activities that may be more beneficial when you’re experiencing symptoms. For example, swimming is a good activity because it doesn’t put pressure on your joints. Water activities may also help with your symptoms if your body temperature rises while exercising. You can also wear a cooling vest or scarf when doing outdoor activities like hiking.

Remember, exercises don’t have to be physically draining. Starting out with just a short walk each day will make a world of difference. You can also practice low-impact exercises like stationary bicycling, tai chi, and yoga. Yoga, which you can do at your own speed, is great for symptom relief and weight loss. Yoga can also help reduce your fatigue, which may motivate you to get even more exercise.

Be sure to speak to your doctor before starting a more strenuous exercise regimen. Consider working with trainers who’ve worked with people with MS before. They can help develop a strength-training program that suits your overall health condition.

Benefits of exercise

Regular physical activity helps you in many ways, including:

  • losing weight
  • improving your mobility
  • increasing energy levels
  • reducing the severity of your MS symptoms
  • improving your mood
  • boosting immune function

As you build an exercise routine, these habits will also help your body relax. According to Harvard Health Publications, exercise can also help reduce stress and counter depression. Additionally, it stimulates your brain to create natural painkillers, or endorphins.

Often, diet goes hand in hand with exercise for weight loss. But it’s important not to think of your eating habits as “dieting,” especially when there’s no specific eating plan for people with MS. Most specialists recommend that people with MS follow the general low-fat, high-fiber diet.

Read more: Strategies for weight loss »

Sticking to a well-balanced meal plan and learning portion control will help with your weight loss journey. Visit the United States Department of Agriculture’s site Choose My Plate to learn more about portion control.

In general, weight loss happens when you burn more calories than you consume. An average woman needs about 1,500 calories to lose 1 pound per week. An average man needs 2000 calories to lose 1 pound per week. But these numbers may differ from person to person. You can download the app MyFitnessPal to track your calories.

The quality of food also counts. Try to stick to whole foods such as:

  • fresh fruits and vegetables
  • whole grains
  • lean proteins
  • olive and fish oils

There is some evidence that omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids have some benefit for people with MS. Biotin, a form of vitamin B, may also help with disability progression. According to a preliminary study, people who took high-dose biotin for 48 weeks showed improvement in walking.

Consult a dietitian with experience helping people with MS if you feel you need more guidance.

Beware special diets

There are many different kinds of trendy diets, and some that specifically target people with MS. Most of these diets have no or little evidence about their benefits. They have also not been tested for effectiveness or safety. In general, a healthy and varied diet should be enough to help you maintain your weight. You can also ask your doctor for diet recommendations.

Ask your doctor before trying a specialized diet, like the ketogenic diet. Some special diets require following strict eating guidelines that could be harmful, while others may lack nutrients that you need.

Read more: Can the ketogenic diet treat MS? »

Exercise is still important, especially if you’re trying to gain weight. In addition to strengthening your muscles, exercise can also stimulate your appetite. Being underweight may also be a sign of poor nutrition. See a doctor if you’re losing weight over time. You may need to change medications or try another type of treatment. A nutritionist can also help you create a diet that will help you to put on more weight.

Planning your meals and cooking more than you need so that you can have food that’s easily reheated may also help, especially when you don’t feel like cooking or skipping meals.

For the majority of people with MS, it’s possible to manage weight loss or gain. Exercise can help with both, as well as symptoms of MS. Some physical activities like swimming and yoga may also be more beneficial than others, if you frequently experience symptoms.

Other treatment options that may help include:

  • muscle relaxants
  • physical therapy
  • stress management exercises
  • getting plenty of rest

Your doctor also can prescribe corticosteroids to treat inflammation, as well as other medications that may slow the progression of the disease. Talk to your doctor if you’re having difficulty managing your weight.