There is no right or wrong exercise for people with MS. However, the nature of MS may mean that you have to be more aware of what you can achieve than someone who doesn't have MS. If you try an activity and it does not make your symptoms worse, then it is most likely to be fine for you.
If you have concerns about undertaking certain activities, talk to a relevant health professional (eg a neurologist, GP, MS specialist nurse, physiotherapist, occupational therapist) beforehand. A physiotherapist will be able to give you some tips as to which exercises best meet your needs. Have a look at our page on starting exercising, as we address some things to think about before you embark on a fitness or activity programme.
If you work with a fitness instructor it is important that they are aware that you may need to work at a slightly slower pace or maybe take more frequent breaks. An experienced yoga or pilates class leader should be able to adjust the class to take your physical needs into account.
In this page, we present some ideas to keep you active, organised by the level of mobility that might be required. Mobility isn't the only consideration, of course. Visual problems, bladder or bowel issues may also determine what you would like to do and where you would feel comfortable doing it. Don't rule anything out, though. You might be surprised at how much support there is in the UK for accessible sports, from angling to seated waterskiing!
Key organisations to help you find a suitable sport or exercise include Disability Sport UK as well as Sport England, Disability Sport Wales, Scottish Disability Sport, and Northern Ireland Disability Sport. You might also like to look for local opportunities with this disability sport finder or contact the charity Activity Alliance, which works to make an active life possible for all. If you have been a member of the British Armed Forces, the charity Help for Heroes can offer advice and support in taking up competitive exercise or a new activity.
I usually remain seated
Many sports have seated or wheelchair accessible versions, and there are national organisations to promote disability sports of all kinds. The British Wheelchair Sport organisation can help direct you to an activity you could try.
If active sports do not appeal, then you could still look to develop an interest that gets you out and about. Birdwatching, sketching or photography give you an excuse to seek new horizons or explore your local environment from your wheelchair. If you have stiffness in your hands, you may find sketching with pastels or charcoal easier than manipulating paint and brushes. Also, cameras and binoculars are lighter and simpler to use than ever before.
Exercise at home is just as valuable as exercise outside the home. You could look at our exercise videos designed for people with MS, or build your own exercise programme from the selection of exercises we have put together with a neurophysiotherapist. Start with a small number of exercises, and add more as you get used to them. Interactive games consoles can provide useful exercise along with improvements in flexibility and alertness. You could also look at home exercise machines, including rowing and cycling machines, if space and cost allow.
Swimming or water exercise classes are a popular option for people with MS. The water supports and cools you as you exercise, or just stretch and relax. Aqua aerobics classes may use buoyancy aids to keep you secure in the water, and handheld floats to work your arm muscles.
Your local swimming pool will be able to tell you about the measures they have in place to enhance accessibility. This may take the form of hoists, sloping 'beach' entry points or wider steps with firm handrails. You could also contact the rehabilitation department of your local hospital, as they may run swimming classes led by physiotherapists that you could join.
Many swimming pools across the country have been designated Hub Clubs. Hub Clubs are mainstream swimming clubs that have been identified by the ASA, and have a responsibility to engage with swimmers with a disability, offer an assessment for new swimmers, and signpost swimmers into further swimming provision which is appropriate for them. You can find out more from the British Swimming website on para-swimming opportunities in the UK.
An arm cycling machine is a stationary exercise machine that is also known as an upper body ergometer. You will usually find them in rehabilitation centres or MS therapy centres, although they are becoming more common in mainstream gyms too. These machines usually have adjustable seats and posture positions, although you can also find small table-top machines suitable for home use. They are particularly useful for aerobic upper body exercise, allowing you to raise your heart rate even while seated. Fully mobile arm cycles can be taken on and off the roads too.
Handling rods, lines and bait are all possible from a seated position. It may not be the most active sport, but landing a whopper can be physically challenging! The British Disabled Angling Association can direct you to useful equipment and fishing sites where safe wheelchair access is available.
Seated Team Sports
Seated team sports such as wheelchair rugby, powerchair football, seated basketball or boccia take place all over the country. If you are looking for some social engagement as well as exercise, one of these might be right for you. The links to disability sport at the top of the page are a good place to start, but you could also investigate these individual sites too.
British Wheelchair Basketball can find you a local club to take part in this fast-paced sport, some of which will be able to loan you a sporting wheelchair to try out.
British Wheelchair Rugby, also known as Quad Rugby or Murderball, is maybe not for the faint-hearted, but it is a lot of fun.
Seated Exercise Classes
Exercise classes designed specifically for seated people can be found across the country. These might be based around the principles of Yoga, Pilates or other movement forms, and will help you improve your strength and posture. You might like to try your nearest MS Therapy Centre initially, but also ask at your local leisure centres sports clubs to see what accessible and seated classes they have.
If you are lucky enough to live close to some of the UK's beautiful landscapes, then you will likely be able to find organisations to help you get out and enjoy it on a regular basis. Alternatively, these organisations run holidays which could be a great opportunity for a respite from daily life, for both you and your family. Activities include climbing, sailing, archery and horseriding. The specific activities offered will depend on the site you visit.
The Calvert Trust - Accessible outdoor activity at three sites, Kielder, Exmoor and the Lake District
Bendrigg Trust - Adventure courses and holidays in Cumbria and the Yorkshire Dales for disabled people and their families
The QE2 Centre - Accessible activities in Hampshire
Red Ridge Centre - A wide range of accessible activities based in Welshpool.
Sailing and Boating
Getting out on the water can give a huge sense of freedom, and once you are in a boat, a lot of the activity is done with the upper body. Local sailing clubs can be found on practically any body of water across the UK, and there are also wheelchair-friendly opportunities to be found on sea-going ships.
The Jubilee Sailing Trust has specially adapted sailing ships that can be sailed by people in wheelchairs as part of a large crew. This could make a memorable holiday.
The British Disabled Water Ski Association can point you to an accessible location for newcomers to water-skiing, and there are all kinds of adaptations to the water ski that can enable you to have a go.
Canoeing is accessible through the British Canoeing Paddleability programme, focusing on what you can do rather than what you can't.
Rowing boats can be adapted for all kinds of mobility impairments, and you can find a club affiliated to the Adaptive Rowing scheme through British Rowing UK.
Archery can be practiced from a seated position, indoors as well as outdoors. The British Wheelchair Archery Association can point you to a local club, and also run training weekends themselves where you can get expert coaching.
Bowls is a gentle but engaging game that can be played by all, irrespective of disability. You can get adaptations to prevent your wheelchair marking the turf, or to make handling or rolling a ball easier, and then compete on equal terms with able-bodied people. The British Wheelchair Bowls Association can provide further help.
The French version of bowls, Petanque or Boule, is played on all kinds of surfaces, and often in the gardens or yards of country pubs. It could be well worth joining a team just for the social aspect! The standard petanque rules allow the equal competition of wheelchair users with able bodied people, and there are organisations for all the home nations. You can find more information through the UK Petanque Portal.
The Disabled Ramblers association organise around 30 rambles each year between March and October across England and Wales. These are graded routes suitable for sturdy wheelchairs or powerchairs, accompanied by able-bodied people to open gates and perform similar tasks. Powered chairs can be hired from the organisation for these rambles, and accessible toilets are often provided.
My dressage dream became a reality
When Diane Green was diagnosed with progressive MS, she thought her riding days were over. But now, 17 years later, Diane and her horse Winnie have their sights set on the Paralympics in 2020.
Getting the endorphins going
Judy Beveridge is 45 and has secondary progressive MS, which makes it hard to stay as active as she would like. But discovering tandem cycling last year has given her a whole new way to stay fit.
I can stand and walk short distances with aids
All of the ideas for seated sports work just as well for those who can stand and walk a little. Minor adjustments to equipment, or the provision of some postural support will in many cases make these activities open to you. For example, archers can use perching stools or gym equipment can be modified or personalised.
All the wheelchair sports are open to you too. In practice, you may find that you can exert yourself better in a wheelchair, even if you do not usually use one. This way you get better quality exercise. In competition, you may find there is a points system applied to the varying levels of physical ability, to make it a fair contest.
Although balance or mobility issues can make it easier for you to exercise seated, you are advised to stand up when you can as well, in order to maintain flexibility and strength in the muscles you use for standing. You may find that a mixture of activity types, some seated and some standing, will suit you best.
The ideas listed in this section are activities where you might not need to involve any disability-specific equipment. You may wish to have a chat with the activity leader about what you can do, or take along a friend who can help you over any minor mobility issues, but in general these are mainstream activites you can try.
Kayaking, canoeing, rowing or sailing. It can be tricky to get in and out of a small boat, but once you are in, you generally do most of the work with your arms. Enjoy a gentle paddle or train with a crew. Lakes and rivers where you can find boathouses with full facilities and easy parking can be found through the Royal Yacht Club Sailability programme.
You could join any exercise class, such as yoga, tai chi or pilates, or more general fitness or toning class. Inform the instructor of your needs, and do what you can with their guidance. These classes often take place in hot rooms, so do take cold water to drink and ask to stand near a fan or open window if possible.
Cycling is good aerobic and endurance exercise, and there is a growing network of safe cycle lanes and tow path routes across the UK. Having balance problems need not preclude you from taking it up as a sport. If you ride a tandem bicycle with an able friend or partner, they can be responsible for balancing you both. Alternatively you could choose a recumbent cycle, where there are three wheels, and the ability to balance is not so crucial.
For cycling competitively, whether outdoors or on indoor tracks, contact British Cycling for a list of Go-Ride hub clubs where specialist coaching is available.
Unlike many sports, you don’t have to be big, strong or fast to be successful at golf. For many it is as much about improving their personal performance as competing with others. The handicapping system allows people of different abilities to play against each other. Most clubs allow players who might have problems walking around the course to use golf carts.
I can walk unaided but tend to tire
All of the above ideas are open to you, although you may wish to choose activities which give you the opportunity to rest periodically. This could be either in turn-based sports such as golf or boules, or endurance exercise such as jogging, rambling or recumbent cycling where you can stop when you like, and build up your stamina gradually.
Team games often have a goal-keeping role, which may involve less activity, and of course you can often substitute on and off the pitch when you need to rest.
If you would like to build up your strength, so that you tire less easily, be prepared to start gently. Incorporate resistance exercise where possible, as that has been shown to strengthen muscles. Stronger muscles require less energy to move, and you will then be able to do more. If you are realistic about what you can achieve, you are more likely to stick with it.
I can generally move freely and unaided
All of the above activity ideas are open to you, plus anything else you might think of yourself. If you have relapsing-remitting MS, you may feel entirely well between relapses and be able to exercise as much as you like. However, if you haven't exercised in a while, you will need to start slow and be sensible about how quickly you can progress. There are plenty of staged exercise programmes you could use, such as the Couch to 5km running approach.
Your MS may make you eligible for professional performance sport in competition. Several recent members of the Paralympic Team GB/NI have MS and have spoken publically about how they manage their condition alongside being a professional athlete.
It might take a little trial and error to find an activity that you love to do, which doesn't make your MS symptoms worsen. In general, you would be advised to pace yourself and listen to your body. Don't be tempted to over-do it, or exercise yourself to exhaustion. Stop if your activity causes pain or a worsening of your MS symptoms, and look at our further tips for starting exercise as a person with MS.
The physical and cognitive benefits of exercise are well known, but there are additional benefits, such as expanding your social world, or spending time in the natural world. Nothing is certain with MS, and you might not always have the mobility you have now. By exercising regularly, you can slow or lessen the impact of possible physical and neurological decline in the future.
- Disabil Rehabil. 2017 Apr;39(8):727-735 Summary Exergaming for individuals with neurological disability: a systematic review.
- J Bodyw Mov Ther. 2018 Jan;22(1):192-202. Summary Is Pilates an effective rehabilitation tool? A systematic review.
- Mult Scler Relat Disord. 2018 Feb;20:169-177 Summary Physical activity and disability outcomes in multiple sclerosis: A systematic review (2011-2016).
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