Before Kat was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS), she liked nothing more than to lace up her running shoes and let the day's stresses fly from her mind. Then, when her condition began to take its toll, she took up walking instead.
Unfortunately, many people with relapsing-remitting MS will experience difficulty walking. Alongside the MS fatigue that may limit walking endurance, damage to nerve pathways can cause balance issues, weakness, numbness, or muscle stiffness and spasms. Worries about falling or having an accident can lead to walking problems too.
But Kat didn't give up. Determined to find and stick to a healthy activity, she's in love with exercise again. Here's her story.
I'm an impatient exerciser. The kind who gets bored easily, who needs to feel - if not see - instant results.
Before multiple sclerosis (MS) came along, my go-to exercise was running. I loved how I felt afterwards; like my whole body had been through a physical challenge while my mind felt unburdened by problems or worries. Running gave me time and space to think, and it wore me out enough to get comfortably tired. A good meal, an early night... My running days were bliss.
Unfortunately, like many of my friends with MS, I can no longer run. So, logically, walking is the next best thing. Walking is great for your health. In fact, walking up an incline is said to have similar health benefits to running. Factor in, too, that being simple and free, walking is probably one of the most straightforward exercise regimes there is. Right?
MS, or other chronic illnesses, can make “easy” exercise much harder
I have a bone to pick with walking, and I have another bone for those who tell me it's the easiest thing in the world!
Everyone has an opinion on walking. Glossy magazines, fitness websites, even health professionals say walking is the starting point for a fitter, healthier you. If you're not very fit, just walk. Take 10,000 steps a day (an arbitrary number rumoured to come from a Japanese marketing campaign in the 60s).
Walking is the easiest way to get fit and healthy. If you don’t “like” walking, you’re lazy.
You should be able to reach 10,000 steps a day simply by gardening or walking around the supermarket.
Get off the bus one stop earlier.
Get a dog or join a walking group.
Don't ever sit down for more than three hours a day. Exercise at your desk!
If a mile takes 20 minutes, you're not walking fast enough.
The list goes on and on.
My walking difficulties made me feel like a “failure”
I spent the last year trying to walk more, waiting for it to "click". I read about it, watched videos on the proper technique. I spent a small fortune on osteopathy. As I walked (and emptied my wallet simultaneously, it seemed), I waited for it to get easier and my body to get stronger. Neither happened - in fact, it went the other way. The more I walked, the more I struggled. It was disheartening, to say the least.
I let it get to me. In my head, I was failing. Why was I struggling to do the simplest of things? Where was I headed? According to Prevention.com, "walking is simple enough that nearly any able-bodied person can do it."
Does that mean I'm disabled? How long before I can't walk at all anymore?
I decided to find and stick to an activity I loved
After months of stagnating, my local pool opened again after closure during the pandemic. Fearing the same fate as walking, I started swimming slowly with cautious, gentle strokes.
But, quicker than I thought possible, I started to improve. I could work out hard again. After a year of misery, I found something to give me the same comfort I once had while running. With every swim, I could measure my progress. Further distances. Faster, stronger strokes. Fewer breaks.
And then it hit me. I could still be good at exercise. Improvement can and does happen.
To me, swimming is the polar opposite of walking. I get out of the pool, and I feel energised. My body is developing stamina and strength, not regressing the way it was a few short months ago.
All this time, I had defined my fitness (and, to an extent, my self-worth) on being able to walk 10,000 steps. Because I couldn't walk very far, I believed I couldn't do anything others take for granted. But that's simply not true, and I'm glad to have finally realised it.
Since then, I've returned to the gym. My routine doesn’t require me to lift my left leg, but it’s still a pulse-quickening workout. Finding other ways to get my heart going means I'm feeling healthier and enjoying exercise again. I have stopped beating myself up and thinking my pre-MS level of fitness is long gone.
Walking is still a struggle, and I will never give up hope on being able to run again. It's just not my focus at the moment, and that's perfectly okay. It doesn't mean I'm "less than" or a failure.
If something "simple" isn't working out for you, don't be disheartened. Walking is not the be-all or end-all exercise - and no form of activity is. If you can't run, but enjoy circuits, then that's right for you. If you hate swimming but love yoga, then who's anyone to judge?
Don't listen to anyone else; listen to your body as it knows you best. Try something new. You can still be good at working out and maintaining your health. Doing something we love is far more sustainable than jumping on the latest fitness "fad".
NPS-IE-NP-00381 March 2022