How physical activity can support mental health in MS
10 October 2023
By: Chloe Williams
On World Mental Health Day 2023, Health and Exercise Specialist, Chloe Williams, discusses how physical activity can improve mental health for those living with Multiple Sclerosis.
How MS can affect mental health
Low mood, anxiety, and depression are common symptoms of MS that can be caused by a variety of factors. MS can directly affect parts of the brain that control our mood and emotions, leading to negative changes in the way we feel and react. Living with this long-term, unpredictable condition and dealing with all the challenges it presents can also contribute to feelings of anxiety and stress. Fatigue, pain, and poor sleep are also commonly experienced with MS, all of which directly affect mood and our ability to carry out everyday tasks.
Depression is a mood disorder that can leave you feeling low for weeks or months, rather than a few days. Symptoms can vary widely and range from mild to severe, including feeling sad, anxious, or worried, having low self-esteem, lacking motivation, losing interest in things, and in severe cases feeling suicidal.
It’s important to speak to your GP or MS healthcare team if you think you may be depressed or are experiencing persistent low mood to get the support you may need. This may be in the form of medication, psychological interventions such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, or lifestyle changes including increasing physical activity levels.
Physical activity has been proven to directly improve our mental health. It lifts our mood, relieves tension in the body, clears the mind, increases our self-esteem, improves sleep, and reduces feelings of stress, anxiety and depression.
How physical activity can support mental health
Lifts our mood – positive endorphins get released and stress hormones are reduced when we exercise, making us feel happier and more energised.
Higher energy levels – our bodies rely on oxygen to make energy. Increased blood flow during exercise moves more oxygen around the body, in turn releasing more energy and reducing fatigue.
Better sleep quality – expending more energy can make you tired and ready to rest at the end of the day, improving the quality of your sleep.
Connect with others – when we make exercise a social activity, it allows us to connect with others and see friends.
Coping strategy for anxiety – physical activity gives your brain something to focus on, providing a coping strategy for any anxious or racing thoughts.
"Doing regular exercise has improved my life. I feel mentally and physically stronger, which in turn helps me cope with the ever-changing day-to-day symptoms of MS.
Why not give the gym a try or do some other forms of exercise like swimming? You will soon feel the benefits of it. I may not always be smiling when I go into the gym, but I always have a satisfied grin on the way out. I did it again!"
MS symptoms can make exercising difficult. But even a small amount of regular exercise can with health and wellbeing. Speak to your MS team, GP or a physiotherapist or fitness instructor with experience of MS to guide you and get you started.
How much physical activity do we need?
Whatever our physical ability, we should aim to be physically active every day and try to reduce the amount time we are inactive.
the NHS and UK Government suggest adults should do at least 150 minutes of moderate intensity physical activity each week, spread evenly. This can lead to the mental health benefits mentioned above, while also reducing risk of other health conditions such as heart disease, stroke, and certain cancers. Moderate intensity activity raises your heart rate and makes you breathe faster, but you should still be able to talk at this intensity.
Examples of moderate intensity activities include walking, cycling, dancing, yoga, exercise classes, water aerobics, and hiking.
It’s also important to include muscle strengthening exercises at least twice a week. Having stronger muscles helps to prevent the natural decline in muscle mass and strength as we age. It also reduces fall risk, improves balance and increases the ability to perform every tasks, all of which are particularly important for those living with MS.
Tips for increasing physical activity levels
Focus on activities that you enjoy – whether you reintroduce an old hobby or find a new activity, you’re more likely to want to be active and make exercise a part of your routine if you enjoy what you’re doing!
Start small and progress slowly – work at your own pace and fitness level. Don’t rush into doing too much too soon, as physical activity will feel more manageable, and you’ll be able to build your fitness steadily.
Be comfortable with your clothing – wearing something that you feel comfortable in can help you feel more confident and allow you to move more freely when exercising.
Make exercise a social activity – organise a walk with a friend or join a group exercise class – some local leisure centres offer group sessions for specific health-related conditions.
Warm up and cool down – when starting an exercise session, ease into the activity by gradually increasing the intensity and your heart rate over the first 5-10 minutes. At the end of a session, take at least 5 minutes to steadily reduce the level back down to resting.
What if I’m feeling unwell?
“If you're in a really bad place, don't be too hard on yourself if you can't exercise. It can be easy to start feeling guilty or beat yourself up about not exercising, and this can start to contribute to feeling unwell.
You may need to focus on other things for a while and build some physical activity into your routine once you're feeling a bit better. It's important to find a balance and figure out what works best for you.”
If you have MS and don’t know where to start with becoming more physically active, are unsure far you should push yourself, or just want to embark on a new exercise regime, it’s best to consult your MS team or GP beforehand. It’s important to make sure the exercise you do is appropriate for your fitness and physical ability. If you’re experiencing issues with your mental health, make sure you speak to your healthcare team to get the support you need.