It was May 2008. I was 28 years old.
I remember sitting inside the neurologist’s office with my parents. The conversation went like this:
Neurologist: “Your lumbar puncture and MRI results confirm that you have multiple sclerosis [MS]. It means the nerves in your brain and spinal cord are damaged. That’s why you’re experiencing these symptoms.”
Me: “Oh. Does that mean I have to stop playing hockey?”
When I received an MS diagnosis, my first reaction wasn’t to ask about care plans. I didn’t ask how long my symptoms would last or what I should do next. All I wanted to know was whether I could stay active.
Exercise has always been a big part of my life. I’ve always been on the go, even from a very young age, trying my hand at every sport possible. My family are all active too. My dad is still playing international field hockey in his 70s!
Thankfully, my neurologist told me that receiving an MS diagnosis didn’t mean I had to give up playing hockey.
“In fact,” he said, “I’d recommend you continue playing for as long as you possibly can.”
Hockey is a tough sport. You have to be physically strong, quick on your feet, and agile enough to dodge flying balls. It’s been a part of my life since I was old enough to hold the miniature hockey stick my dad made for me.
Although I played many other sports at the time, hockey was my true passion. It was my life. Over the years, I’d played to a high level, from school right through to university. I’d been both the Vice-Captain and Captain of my hockey teams, and I’d won many trophies and medals.
As well as my dad, my sisters and many other members of my extended family also played. Hockey is in our blood.
Yet, in the years since I received an MS diagnosis, I’ve had to adapt, adjust and change my ways of staying active.
Continuing to be active with MS
Making adjustments to suit me
In the end, I continued to play hockey until five years after I received an MS diagnosis.
I’d always been an attacker, but MS fatigue began to affect how much sprinting I could manage. I gradually moved into a defensive position, which I enjoyed more than I expected!
I also adjusted my training schedule. I used to train twice a week, with two matches over the weekend. Instead, I reduced it down to one game at the weekend. During the week, I found other, less intense, ways of keeping up my skills and fitness.
Alternative ways to stay active with MS
With how my MS was progressing, particularly my fatigue, I knew I would have to find an alternative to playing hockey.
I needed something that didn’t rely on me running around, especially if I’d need to use walking aids or a wheelchair.
I took up dance and continue to dance today. Dance has allowed me to stay active after having to give up hockey. Dance allows me to go at my own pace. Even when I have bad days with my fatigue, I do what I can.
I can also take toilet breaks halfway through a class if my bladder is playing up. That’s hard to do in the middle of a hockey match!
I can also dance if I need to use a wheelchair, so I don’t have to give up something I enjoy if MS one day affects my mobility. Knowing this has made me feel much better about the future.
Push yourself but be realistic
It’s essential to set goals for myself, but I keep them realistic. Otherwise, I’d feel like I’m constantly failing.
When I still played hockey, I accepted that it was okay not to manage an entire match. I always put in 100 percent on the pitch, so I didn’t feel bad for asking to be substituted when I had reached my limit.
I have also wanted to do a London Marathon, but I know that’s now an unrealistic goal for my capabilities. Instead, I trained for and completed a 20-kilometre walk for an MS charity. Having targets like these keep me motivated and inspired. If I set goals too high, it can result in disappointment and frustration.
I know how I feel more than anyone, and I’m very happy to keep setting these goals for myself.
Staying active is good for mental health
When I’m active, I’m in my “happy place.” The adrenaline and endorphins are great for my mental health.
That’s why it is also important to set goals that don’t feel like chores. Before I stopped playing hockey, I was becoming increasingly frustrated with my body’s limits. I wanted to continue playing at the standard I’d always played. I also felt guilty that I was letting my teammates down. As my reactions became slower, I was more likely to get injured.
As hard as it was, I had to question whether this would ever improve. The answer was “no”, so I decided to stop playing before I came to hate the thing I loved doing most.
I’m glad I continue to be active through walking and dance. Exercise is very good for the mind and brain, as well as the body. For a person with MS, activity is neuroprotective, meaning that it protects nerve cells from damage. The boost you get from exercise can last for several days afterwards.
The benefits of support networks
The social contact you can have through being active is fantastic. MS Society research suggests that loneliness may affect three in five people with MS. As a result, taking measures to prevent isolation is vital.
Team sports are an easy and fun way to make friends. My hockey team were incredibly supportive following my diagnosis.
Despite being a more solo activity, I also made friends when I started my dance classes. Staying active can mean a refreshing change of scenery, and it can lead to developing helpful support networks.
There’s much more to staying active than just maintaining good physical health when you’re a person with MS. It’s important to find lots of different ways to keep moving whenever you can.
There are so many options for activities and sports these days. You can choose from:
- group classes
- team sports
- online or cyber classes
I don’t believe it when people say they don’t like exercise. I just think they haven’t found an activity that’s right for them yet. There are infinite possibilities, and anyone can exercise regardless of age, physical abilities, or fitness levels.
NPS-IE-NP-00269 May 2021