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How Pilates could help people with MS

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More and more people with MS are signing up to Pilates classes to improve both their physical and emotional wellbeing. Open Door went along to a class at the MS Therapy Centre in Norwich to find out why this type of exercise is proving so popular among the MS community and to meet some of the men and women reaping the rewards

The benefits of exercise for people with MS are well-known, with research showing that regular and moderate activity can actually reduce fatigue levels, as well as improve things like strength, mobility and bowel and bladder function. 

Group of people taking part in pilatesFrom Zumba to spinning, deep water exercise to running, people with MS often tell us about the weird and wonderful exercise classes they partake in and how much it has helped them to manage their MS. One type of exercise which is proving particularly popular amongst the MS community is Pilates, with research showing that this core-strengthening exercise can improve balance, mobility and muscle strength, plus lead to greater improvements in cognitive symptoms and quality of life when compared to more traditional exercise.

For those unacquainted, Pilates – according to the NHS website – is a form of exercise “that aims to strengthen the body in an even way, with particular emphasis on core strength to improve general fitness and wellbeing.” Developed by German-born Joseph Pilates, who believed mental and physical health were closely connected, Pilates exercises are often done on a mat or using special equipment like soft balls and bands.

Pilates for people with MS

Lauren Murphy runs the weekly Pilates class at the MS Therapy Centre in Norwich and explains what a typical session looks like: “We start with exercises on the chairs, we do standing work at the barre and then floor-based exercises for those who can get down on to the floor. If anybody is unable to get down on to the floor we use the chairs, and then we use equipment such as bands and balls to give that extra support.” 

"I can get up no problem at all now and my balance is so much better. The core strength is there which I never had before"

Pilates exercises are low-impact but work every part of the body, and Lauren has seen first-hand just how much of a difference this type of class can make to people with MS.  “There are a huge number of benefits,” Lauren explains. “We look at building strength and control of the muscles, which then helps support the joints. It can improve balance, posture and body awareness, and just general wellbeing, so if you’re feeling particularly tense or tight, Pilates does really help you to relax and just generally get everything moving.

“I’ve seen huge improvements in all of my clients here which is so rewarding to see. It doesn’t happen overnight, and you have to work hard, but long-term I have seen changes and I think they would all agree.” 

Mobility and flexibility

Group of people sitting down doing pilatesLisa, who has been attending the Norwich class for a year and a half, certainly agrees. She decided to join to help improve her mobility and has seen big changes. “Before I started coming to the class I couldn’t bend down to the floor. But within a few months I could, and I was able to take part in all the floor exercises which was a massive achievement for me. 

“It’s not instant and you do need to work at it, but it really helps you so much. It helps your mobility, your flexibility and it helps you to get more supple. 

“You get a really nice feeling afterwards. Although you feel like you’ve worked your muscles, you feel like you’ve helped yourself as well, and whether you have MS or not, I would definitely recommend it.” 

Core strength

Richard, diagnosed with MS in 1998 and a volunteer at the Norwich Therapy Centre, took up Pilates four years ago. Before then he would find himself frequently falling over and struggling to get back up on his feet. He feared he’d end up in a wheelchair if he didn’t do something about it, so decided to throw caution to the wind and sign up to a Pilates class. It turned out to be a very wise decision. “I can get up no problem at all now and my balance is so much better. The core strength is there which I never had before,” he explains. 

“Getting fit and maintaining your fitness is a no brainer as far as I’m concerned. I’m sure that if I hadn’t started doing it, I would be in a wheelchair by now.”

Good camaraderie

But it’s not just the physical rewards that Richard and Lisa are reaping. Both agree that the psychological benefits of Pilates should not be underestimated either. “It really helps your general wellbeing,” Lisa says. “It’s a nice source of support as you can have a chat at the class, swap symptoms and know you’re not alone; you know you’re not the only one going through it.  

“When I was first diagnosed with MS, I had never heard of it, and it really hits you in the face. You think ‘What’s going to happen to me’, but coming to the class and meeting everyone, you know you’re not going through it alone.”

“Mentally it’s great because you get a good camaraderie with the other people in the class, and it does make you feel better in yourself,” says Richard. “You don’t get isolated in your house and it gives you that independence.” 

To anybody thinking about signing up to a class, Lauren, Lisa and Richard would all say one thing: “Give it a try!”

“Pilates is suitable for anyone,” says Lauren. “It’s just about having the confidence to go to a class. If it’s not a specific class for people with MS, just let the teacher know about your condition and they will be able to adapt exercises to suit you. 

“If you go regularly you will see improvements both in the class and in general life – everyone should give it a go!” 

PILATES FACT FILE

  • Developed in the early 20th century by German physical trainer Joseph Pilates.
  • Main principles include: concentration, centering, control, breathing, precision and flow.
  • Aims to strengthen the body in an even way, with particular emphasis on core strength to improve general fitness and wellbeing. 
  • Has something to offer people of all ages and levels of ability and fitness, from beginners to elite athletes.
  • Pilates exercises are done on a mat or using special equipment.
  • Practitioners say regular Pilates practice can help improve posture, muscle tone, balance and joint mobility, as well as relieve stress and tension.
  • Some research suggests it can help with stability and posture issues in people who use wheelchairs.
  • Some research suggests clinical Pilates could also help with cognitive symptoms of MS.

Thanks to everyone at Norwich MS Therapy Centre (mstcn.org.uk) for their assistance with this article.

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