In the Swim With MS

The brutal heat many of us have experienced recently is a great reason to search out a pool to take a plunge in for relief, but there are many other reasons to take a dip than escaping the heat. Water exercise, also known as aquatic exercise, is one of the best ways people with multiple sclerosis can get a workout in a safe environment. You can often find organized classes for water exercise, but you can also do your workout alone.

Why you should consider swimming with MS

Before you offer arguments of how you wouldn’t ever be seen in public in a bathing suit, please stop and consider there are many benefits to water exercise versus doing the same activities on dry land.

Relieves stress

First, working out in water limits the stress on your body. The buoyancy of the water redistributes how your knees, back, and other body parts are impacted in a positive way. This buoyancy also allows us to move differently than on land and make body movements easier so you have to be cautious at first and not overdo it! I also think of being in a pool as the same as a great massage because the water flows over the body and helps me to relax and lets stress drift away. Exercise is also shown to help with fatigue, although I always find pool time makes me hungry for a snack and longing for a nap afterward.

Helps beat the heat

Many of us are sensitive to heat and when we work out in a gym setting or in the privacy of our own home, we can quickly elevate our core body temperature. This heat sensitivity affects each of us differently but often causes muscle weakness and exhaustion. Fortunately, this is a temporary phenomenon but nonetheless very real while it is happening. If you’re exercising you can quickly overheat and have to stop, but if you are exercising in the water there is a constant cooling effect. I’m not saying we can’t sweat and overheat in the pool as well, but it takes a lot longer to happen. Everyone has a different pool temperature that is good for them, and I personally like it about 80-82 degrees which is warm enough to be comfortable yet cool enough to keep me from overheating.

Provides cardio benefits

Swimming and water exercise is an excellent opportunity to give the heart a workout as well. Sadly, many of us with MS are living a fairly sedentary life – we sit down at every opportunity. At least I do! When I fill out those surveys for the doctor or research questions about what type of exercise I do, I am honest and check the box labeled 'Rarely'. Giving the heart a bit of a workout is important because it is also a muscle, and needs attention to stay in shape. Aquatic exercise is an excellent way to increase your heart rate through aerobic movements.

It's a resistance workout

I’m not talking about resisting exercise, but the type of exercise that can help our muscles by giving gentle resistance. If you read about exercise, they often mention using stretch bands, hand weights, and other equipment to use for resistance training. Aquatic exercise is an excellent way to add resistance exercise to your routine. The force of the water around your body applies gentle pressure. You can take advantage of this resistance by simply walking in a pool.

A pool can be a safe space

Always have a swim buddy along in the water or close by in case you encounter problems; this is just smart and not necessarily related to having MS. Another note to mention is the safest place to fall down, which many of us with MS are prone to doing, is in the water. We most likely can’t hurt ourselves if we happen to fall while exercising if it is in a pool.

Learn more about swimming with MS

The National MS Society has a number of aquatic programs across the US.  If you can’t find a water exercise program in your area to learn more about and join, I can recommend an online resource published by the Australian MS Society.  We all know those Aussies are serious about swimming and water sports, right? Their booklet Aquatic exercise for people with multiple sclerosis (MS) was developed for health care professionals like physical therapists, but it is available to anyone who wants to learn more. It clearly spells out information on starting aquatic exercise and can help you develop your own water program.

Swimming doesn’t have to be limited to the summer months. If you have a local YMCA or qualify for special programs you can often find a pool that is open year-round. Communities often have public pools. Or, you might be adventurous/brave and talk to your local hotel manager and ask if you might use their swimming pool as a way they could offer a public service to you. The worst the manager can say is no.

Of course, the usual advice applies – do not start any exercise program without first consulting your doctor. I don’t know enough about tax laws, but if you get a prescription for aquatic exercise you might be able to write off any costs you incur to use a pool. For most of us, our doctors are going to enthusiastically say ‘do it!’ I hope you are encouraged to find a way to get in the swim with your MS and do some form of aquatic exercise.

Wishing you well,


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