Exercise & Depression: I Never Realized This about My Spasticity

I recently started to work on a new exercise routine, and since then, I have really been trying to maintain it the best I can. You see, for the last 4-6 months, I have been dealing with one of the worst bouts of depression that I have ever dealt with in my life. While waiting to see a new doctor about my medication for it, I started looking into other ways that could possibly help me battle my depression. I was willing to try anything to make that kind of pain stop! I read about a lot of different things that could maybe help, but the one thing that kept coming up over and over again was the benefit of exercise (specifically cardio) when it came to combating clinical depression. Ugh, exercise… OK, let’s give it a try.

Getting started with an exercise routine

Getting started on a routine was by no means easy, especially with my Multiple Sclerosis (MS) fatigue and the added fatigue from my depression, so it obviously didn’t make me feel good right away. I have no shame in admitting that I always hated exercising, and as of now, I still do. So, for the first week or so, it was really difficult to try to convince myself that the misery I was inflicting on myself would soon start to fade and slowly prove to be beneficial to how I was feeling. After a few weeks of maintaining my exercise routine, sure enough, I was starting to notice that I was not waking up feeling horribly depressed for no reason. This emotional/mental “transformation” was before I started any new medication, so I really got turned on to the idea of exercising to help me overcome my depression.

Exercise is helping me with more than depression

This is a two-for-one kind of deal for me because obviously, with MS, exercise is essential for so many different reasons. Not only can it help maintain/improve mobility, but it has been shown to benefit both cognitive function and even levels of fatigue (sounds counterintuitive, I know). That said, honestly? When I finish running on the elliptical (my cardio exercise equipment of choice), I don’t feel less fatigued.

Getting more done each day

Even the next day, I don’t feel less fatigued. I just feel like I recently did a bunch of strenuous activity because… I did. However, I have noticed that as I maintain my exercise routine that I am, despite still feeling fatigued, getting more done every day. I keep a daily journal of everything I accomplish each day so that at any point, I can look back and see when I did what. Also, when I’m feeling depressed because I am feeling like I’m not doing anything, I can look at this journal and see that I actually did get something done which usually makes me feel a little better.

Subjective or objective improvements?

Anyway, in this journal of mine, you could see how much I would typically get done every day before I started my little fitness program and how much more I was getting done after. So to me? The benefits of a little exercise were not totally subjective like I thought it would be. I would pretty much argue that it’s objectively helping not only my depression but my fatigue, or rather, my stamina; how much I can get done before feeling totally wiped out. So because of this, I was surprisingly finding myself looking forward to exercising each day. This was a really weird and foreign feeling to me because again, I never liked to exercise.

Hold on, hit pause

But just as I was really getting into it, I somehow pulled a muscle in my lower back while simply making my bed. I wasn’t lifting weights, I wasn’t trying to lift something heavy off the ground, I wasn’t doing something strenuous, I was just leaning over and tucking in the sheets. Awesome. I could hardly stand because it hurt so bad! So that meant... taking a break from running on the elliptical. At first, the days just felt boring, and I was getting a little antsy just lying down with an ice pack, but then I started to notice, despite having started a higher dose of medication, my depression was starting to creep back in.

My spasticity

After a couple of weeks of taking it easy, icing my back, wearing a simple back brace thing, and doing lots of back stretches, I was feeling good as new. Obviously, I started my exercising back up nice and slow with a few short walks around the neighborhood, but then I finally decided that I was ready to start running on the elliptical again. I had been looking forward to this for what felt like so long! This, however, is where I learned something new about one of the limitations my MS had introduced into my life a few years ago but that had (for the most part) never really seemed to be an issue in my everyday life. Around 2012, I had a really bad relapse, and this is where I was first introduced to what spasticity really was because my legs were totally stiff. It took lots of physical therapy and time but eventually, I was able to walk again and the tightness did not hurt as bad.

The cold really makes my spasticity flare

Now, I rarely notice my spasticity except for when I’m in cold temperatures, and by “cold,” I mean around freezing (32°F). My body will feel great everywhere else, but my legs will feel like they have turned into two wooden pieces of timber with no joints. California rarely hits a low of 32° except for in our very brief “winters," but around November we start hitting around 40° in the early morning. That may not sound like it’s very cold for most people in the States, but in Southern California, we are used to much higher temperatures (peaking around 110° in the summer).

Cold improves most of my MS symptoms - but not my legs

So, for most of us here on the west coast? 40° is a little chilly, but not to me (haha). The only time I ever really notice the spasticity in my legs really acting up is when I’m in Colorado during actual winter (known to many Californians as the “white-cold times,”) or when I get extremely stressed out/angry about something. My point is, I love the cold; it makes most of my MS feel much better, and I don’t feel trapped next to the A/C, but it just kills my legs! Keeping that in mind, the garage where I work out faces north, so it never gets direct sun, meaning it’s always cold in there, often colder than in the house or even outside!

Santa Ana winds on top of the cold

But on top of the cold, the Santa Ana winds have been kicking up which you may have recently heard about on the news because those winds are fueling all the crazy fires here in California. The Santa Ana winds basically do three things: they make the air really dry, they blow a bunch of junk around the air, and they make it feel a lot colder than it actually is. Luckily, in the shelter of the garage where I run on the elliptical, I don’t have to worry about the wind making me feel colder. However, it actually is in fact much colder. So, because of my life-long dislike of exercising, I have never really done any physical fitness stuff like I’m doing right now in these lower temperatures which, I have to emphasize, is drastically colder than I am used to, but I love it!

Running on the elliptical with spasticity

Despite how great I felt going into working out in the cold garage, I noticed that my MS was doing something once I started. As I was running on the elliptical, I kept noticing that every few revolutions, my left leg would not bend. It would basically lock up on me so that I would just rise with the foot pedal like I was trying to stand as tall as I could on one leg which, as you could imagine, felt really uncomfortable when trying to run. Still, I pushed through it and really focused on trying to keep my leg bent but it’s like all the muscles in my leg were just too tight, so every few seconds my body would bob up an extra 6-8 inches.

Cold, dry air might not be best for exercising

After I finished my 30-minute session, I didn’t feel as great as I had felt after exercising a few weeks prior when I had first really got things started. Now, my knee was kind of bugging me when I put my weight on it, and I had quickly realized, after stepping off the elliptical, that the dry air brought about by the Santa Ana winds had totally dried out my sinuses. My nose burned every time I took a breath in, my forehead was killing me, behind my eyes hurt, my ears hurt, even my front teeth hurt! I had been looking forward to hopping back on the elliptical for weeks because I thought it would make me feel so much better, and in some ways it did, but for the most part, it ended up leaving me feeling rather miserable for the rest of the day. Not only did my face feel like it was going to cave in under some incredible pressure while my head was going to explode, but my knee was now hurting because of my spasticity not letting it bend while I ran on the elliptical. I never realized that the spasticity in my legs (especially my left leg) is as bad as it is. I thought it took much colder temperatures to makes my legs “seize up”.

I’m not going to stop

Maybe I need to do more stretching before a run? Or perhaps I need to find a way to keep my legs warm while I exercise? Thermals? Uck. I don’t know. Either way, I’m not going to stop because the benefits I seem to be getting from exercising by far outweigh the negatives. Nothing has ever helped my depression as much as exercise has, and I can also tell that I’m walking better, my balance is improving, and the level of fatigue I deal with every day is apparently a little bit less terrible. I guess I would say that I am starting to feel good in life, something I haven’t felt in a long time. If you are thinking about starting an exercise routine to help with things like depression or fatigue, just keep in mind: the results are probably not going to be instant. It took me weeks to build the strength and stamina it takes for me to do as little as I do right now, but I am slowly working my way towards where I want to be, one step at a time.

Do you exercise regularly? How much and how often? Would you say it has improved your MS? What tips do you have for people looking to try to start some sort of exercise for the first time? Share in the comments below!

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