By Laura Wells, as told to Rachel Reiff Ellis
When I was diagnosed with MS at 39, I would say my focus on my health was sporadic. I had young kids at the time, and my diet and exercise habits were all over the place. Before kids, I’d jog a few times a week, or get on the treadmill or bike. I’d also work in some weight training. But after the kids came along, I no longer did much regular physical activity. I was focused more on my kids’ schedules and needs than my own.
Once the kids were older, I began to have more time and attention for healthy eating, but my worsening MS symptoms were a real barrier to moving my body the way I once could. Because of my fatigue and balance issues, I could no longer jog or even go for long walks. So I started trying to figure out what I could do for myself. I decided to turn to yoga -- something I used to do years ago.
I started by going to classes twice a week, but even that got hard for me, because keeping myself steady is so challenging. I was constantly worried that I might fall over and embarrass myself trying to do a Standing Warrior pose. And then I discovered one-on-one sessions. My instructor was so good about modifying any pose I needed help with. She’d show me how to use a wall or chair for support. These changes in my yoga practice meant I could do a little bit of exercise daily, which has turned out to be an important key to my well-being.
When I challenge my body to do small spurts of intentional movement every day, it keeps me stronger both mentally and physically. It's very easy to go down the rabbit hole thinking about all the things you can't do when you have MS. So if I can do even just 15 to 20 minutes of yoga a day, it can go a long way.
I’m also fortunate that I live in an area with access to a physical therapist who specializes in MS. She's been amazing at showing me exercises that can strengthen the weak parts of my legs and help me work on my stability.
When it comes to healthy eating habits, my philosophy has always been everything in moderation. I know a lot of people who have tried special diets, but I just try to fill my plate with a lot of fruits and vegetables and whole grains, and eat fewer packaged and processed foods. My downfall is my sweet tooth, which I’ve always had. And sugar causes inflammation, which can ramp up MS symptoms. But being aware of how foods make me feel helps a lot. I know that I feel better when I eat a salad for lunch instead of something carb-filled. So I try not to overdo it in any unhealthy category.
It’s funny, because while MS has worsened my physical balance, it’s forced me to find balance in my day-to-day life. I’ve always been someone who feels guilty if I’m not doing or helping, or being productive. But it’s become clear that it’s not only OK to relax, it’s necessary. Fatigue is one of the main symptoms of MS, and being more mindful of my activity levels is one of the ways I keep my stress low and help manage that symptom.
It’s no longer an option for me to stay up too late at night or pack my schedule so full that I don’t have downtime. If I don't take time to sit still and read or listen to music, go for a relaxing stroll, or take a nap, I won’t be able to function. My brain will simply hit a wall. I call it “pea soup brain.” Now, I'm really good about going to bed at the same time every night, and taking a nap every single day. Not a long nap -- just enough so my body can finish the rest of the day strong. I’ve learned that you have to take care of yourself before you can take care of anyone else.
I’ve also found that it’s important to celebrate small successes. The more I can embrace who I am and what I’m able to achieve, the better my mental outlook. If I’m able to do one more set of leg-strengthening exercises today than I was yesterday, that's cause for celebration. It may not look like much to anybody else. But to me, it’s an accomplishment.