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Long Term Benefits of Strength Training for MS

By Matt Cavallo

Four months ago, I limped into the gym for the first time since before COVID-19. I had developed a noticeable limp on my right side. I called it my zombie walk because my right leg drag reminded me of zombie dance from Michael Jackson’s Thriller video. 

It was starting to bother me that people were commenting on my limp. One of my points of pride is that I have been living with multiple sclerosis for almost 20 years and have had no visible signs of disability. Now, with my zombie walk, that was no longer true. Not only was the limp bothering me, but my right hamstring was so stiff that I was afraid it was about to snap. I couldn’t get comfortable in bed at night because right leg would spasm. In addition to my right leg, my right arm was also considerably weaker than my left side. This was because of a major MS exacerbation I suffered in 2016 and have never fully recovered from. Instead, these physical deficits were getting worse over time.

My neurologist said I may want to consider baclofen to help with the stiffness and spasms. Rather than start a new medical regimen, I wanted to see if I could use strength training to naturally address my physical deficits. Disclaimer, I am not someone who likes to workout. I wish I liked exercising and physical fitness, but I never have. So, starting a strength training routine for me was going to take extra discipline because I simply don’t enjoy it. However, I felt I didn’t have a choice this time. I needed to start working out to stop my MS disability from progressing.

It has been four months and I am glad I made that decision. Here are some of the long-term benefits I have experienced from strength training with MS.

1. Flexibility and range of motion. My right hamstring is no longer stiff. It took me more than a month of hamstring exercises, but I am noticing my right hamstring is now catching up with my left. I also have increased flexibility and range of motion, which has helped to reduce my limp so that it is no longer noticeable.

2. Endurance. My endurance has increased substantially. During the first month, I could only walk a short distance without reverting back to the limp. Now my endurance has been built up to the point where my muscles do not fatigue. This has enabled me to walk longer distances without limping.

3. Restful sleep. My leg spasms were keeping me from getting comfortable at night and were waking me up in the middle of the night. Strength training has resolved the restlessness in my legs at night so I am able to get comfortable and experience a more restful sleep.

4. Increased metabolism. Since starting to workout regularly, I noticed I am burning calories without converting it to fat. I am trying to be mindful of what I eat because working out makes me hungry. Even though I am eating more, I am looking leaner because of the increased muscle mass.

5. Decreased fall risk. Now that my legs are stronger and I am walking without a noticeable limp, my fall risk has decreased. I am sturdier on my legs and confident with my stride. 

6. Increased balance. My balance has also increased with exercise giving me a greater sense of confidence.

7. Increased quality of life. Now that I am stronger, I have a better quality of life. My confidence is increased, my sleeping is restful, and my mobility has improved.

8. Improved self-esteem. Physical disability can have a negative effect on self-image and self-esteem. Now that I am feeling stronger, I feel better about myself overall. 

9. New goals. My initial goal was to reduce my limp. Now that I have achieved that goal, I can create new goals. For example, I haven’t been able to run in years. If I keep building strength, I would like to be able to run or jog a 5K with my family. My kids are cross-country runners, so it would be special to overcome my disability and finish a race with them. 

10. Hope. Running a race is a long way away, but since I am starting to feel stronger, I now have something I haven’t had in a while – hope that I can continue to overcome challenges and improve my mental and physical health.