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5 Benefits of Swimming for People Living with MS

By Matt Cavallo

When I was first diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, I experienced numbness from the waist down, which progressed to not being able to walk on my own. The progression happened quickly. From the time I remember feeling numb to not being able to walk on my own was about two to three days. The road to recovery and learning how to walk again was not quick at all, however. It took me months of therapy to be steady on my feet again and started in an unlikely place – the pool.

My neurologist referred me to a physical therapist who specialized in aquatic therapy. From there, I worked with my PT doing pool exercises designed to work on my strength, balance, and walking. One of the things I remember distinctly about this experience was that the aquatic therapy center had two pools. The larger pool was heated and was a lovely lukewarm temperature perfect for swimming. The other, smaller pool was not heated. In fact, it was a cold pool. 

Now I prefer warm water, so when my PT told me we’d be in the cold pool, I objected and said that I preferred the warmer water. He told me that people with MS must use the cold pool in his clinic because of Uhthoff syndrome, which is the worsening of MS symptoms when the body is overheated. Since we were exercising in the pool, he worried that warm water combined with exercise may contribute to my overheating and carried a potential risk of exacerbating symptoms. Still not convinced, I told him that as soon as I got home, I was going to take a hot, steamy shower. 

In the end, however, he won, and I took the cold plunge over and over again as we went through the program. It would be later when I would learn that cold water is actually good for people living with MS, which we will discuss later. 

By the end of my aquatic therapy sessions, I was walking again. Once I was stable enough to get out of the pool, we transitioned my therapy to walking in the PT gym. Ultimately, it was the water therapy that really helped me turn the corner on my road to recovery. Today, I do not need assistance with walking, and I still use the pool to exercise. 

If you are struggling with getting back on your feet or are looking for a low-impact way to exercise, here are five benefits of swimming for people living with MS.

1. Swimming can help with your mobility. As described above, before I started aquatic therapy, I could not walk.

2. Swimming can help with your strength. It is easier to move in the water with a lower effect to your body, which makes it easier to strengthen your muscles.

3. Swimming can help reduce pain and fatigue. Increasing your activity level actually helps decrease fatigue and the same can be said about pain. Because we are lighter and more buoyant in the water, this type of exercise can help reduce both fatigue and pain.

4. Swimming in cold water can help reduce inflammation. Studies dating back over 60 years show the benefits of cold water for people living with MS, which includes reducing inflammation.  

5. Swimming is good for your mental health. Many people living with MS suffer from depression and anxiety. Studies show that swimming can help with both.