Health & Wellness

Overcoming Disability at the Gym

By David Lyons

In 2006, I was working out at the gym when I experienced a sharp pain in my left shoulder. During the next two months, I went through intensifying agony and numbness in various parts of my body. Stubborn by nature, I assumed it was nothing more than a pinched nerve, and I followed my natural inclination that it wasn’t a big deal. That is, until it got so bad I could barely move.
Before I suffered these initial symptoms, I thought I was healthy in every possible way. But, when I went to the hospital, I had no feeling from the chest down. I had to use my arms to pull myself out of the hospital bed. I could only maneuver through the room by stabilizing myself with anything I could grab. Otherwise, I was unable to control my body.
Over the course of a five-night stay in the hospital, I went through a six-hour MRI, a spinal tap, and extensive blood tests. After all that, my neurological specialist came back with a diagnosis: multiple sclerosis.
I prepared to face new challenges. First among them, my specialist told me that I’d need to use a walker at all times and that I’d be wheelchair-bound in the very near future.
I refused to accept this fate. Instead, I put my faith in God and the physical training I’ve known for so many years: bodybuilding. I decided that my fight with this often debilitating disease was going to be in my battle field: the gym! And, because of my background, it was easy for me to dive right into workouts and a specialized nutrition regimen. My battle had begun: fitness against MS.
In 2013, my wife, Kendra, and I founded a charity organization to help people fight MS: the MS Fitness Challenge. We want people with this disease to get off the couch and take an active role in fighting it. During the past few years, we’ve reached people all over the world and have helped them do just that. The purpose of the MSFC is to raise awareness about the importance of fitness, but it’s also about how fitness, and the assistance of a qualified support team, can truly help people overcome the challenges that come with this disease.
We’re focused on educating people about the benefits of health and fitness in combatting MS. We also provide certified fitness training, nutritional guidance, and supplements from our sponsors. The MSFC pays for trainers and provides free membership at a fitness center for local individuals with MS who participate in one of our 12-week challenges. We rely on donations from supporters and business sponsors to fund this – many people with MS can’t afford this on their own and in most cases, medical insurance doesn't cover gym memberships or personal training.
The assistance and education provided by MSFC is crucial to the MS community. Many people with MS, or other chronic conditions, who have experienced a profound physical decline, may be fearful of going to a gym and lifting weights or performing cardio. In fact, some simply aren't capable of doing this on their own.
Even people who are fully capable of getting to the gym and exercising don’t always have an easy time. MS tends to cause trouble with balance, which is key to weightlifting and cardio exercises. MS also causes nerve damage, which often makes it difficult to fully experience the sense of touch.
In fact, I injured myself in 2008, tearing my pectoral muscle while bench pressing because I wasn’t aware of feedback from my body. Just last year, I broke my foot by dropping a heavy weight plate directly on it as I tried to maneuver that plate from one piece of equipment to another. I cannot feel or grasp well with my left hand and should never have tried moving that weight without help. 
MSFC is designed to help people overcome these and the multitude of other challenges that MS throws at us, all while helping people to boost their fitness in a way that can improve their lifestyle long after the 12 week program ends.

Tips to help you workout successfully and safely with MS:
Tip 1: Connect with a qualified and certified trainer who is educated about working with people with MS.
Having a qualified trainer provides some-one with not just an education, but also a spotter for safety. This can help someone with MS train within their boundaries while reducing risk and maximizing benefits.
Through the MSFC, we have created a nationwide certification in association with American Fitness Professionals and Associates, and work in conjunction with the Medical Fitness Network to help you find a trainer in your area.
Tip 2: Strengthen your muscles to support the nerves.
Because a person with MS doesn’t get as much feedback from their body as other people do, they’re prone to muscle atrophy. But, strengthening muscles helps improve balance and coordination. And of course, it also helps to increase muscle mass, which also helps decrease body fat.

Tip 3: Keep inflammation and body temperature low.
Because there is such a wide variety of symptoms associated with MS, it is important to listen to your body. Understand when it becomes overheated and when you may be pushing a bit too hard. Your body will tell you. Keep cool during exercise or any physical exertion by keeping body temperature down, with methods such as cooling vests and using a wet towel around your neck. Inflammation is our enemy, so stay on top of an anti- inflammatory state. Fighting inflammation through supplementation is important, such as following a healthy, anti-inflammatory nutritional program.
Tip 4: Stay positive and in the gym!
Depression also can be a very real part of life with MS. Many people with this disease fear that tomorrow may be the day they will never walk again. We have to deal with the uncertainty of changing symptoms, including unpredictable pain, fatigue, and numbness. But when someone with MS begins an exercise program, a sport, or any form of daily activity, they’re taking their mind off the disease and engaging in something positive. Nothing is more psychologically healthy – and physically beneficial – than pursuing something that draws attention away from the condition.
When I was first diagnosed with MS, I couldn’t follow my doctor’s advice to take it easy. My gut told me I had to move, and I had to continue my training even though I was lying in a hospital bed numb from the chest down. I wanted to get better, and I wanted to inspire other people with MS. I firmly believe you have to fight back. Otherwise, MS can have a devastating effect on your emotional and physical well-being. I encourage everyone with MS, or any physical challenge, to fight back through fitness and health.
Although I do suffer many symptoms that can be limiting at times, I choose to battle like a warrior and keep beating MS in the gym. Setbacks come and try to derail my goal, but through my faith, determination, and a “never quit” mindset, I continue this journey with no regrets.
I might never win a bodybuilding contest with multiple sclerosis, but I will win the battle against MS. My journey is not about me winning contests. It’s about motivating others with MS to take control of their lives, get fit, and beat the odds in every way possible. Not everyone has to compete in a contest to win. You win by just getting up and fighting.