Martha’s first encounter with MS symptoms saw her heading to the hospital, after a deep burning sensation in her left leg became numbness that spread from her left foot up to her hip. During that first hospital stay, as steroids gradually reduced her numbness, doctors recommended a period of rehabilitation.
‘The doctor at the hospital said, “we think your walking has probably been impacted from this, we want to send you to rehab” but I was determined not to go so I said, “no don’t worry, next week you’ll see me on rollerblades, I’ll be fine.” I was in total denial,’ Martha said.
For the next decade, Martha says she downplayed her MS – determined to carry on as normal.
‘I put my head in the sand for a while, not wanting to accept it. I didn’t want to read much about MS, I didn’t want to interact with people with MS. I kept going over the same questions: “What’s going to happen to me?” “Am I going to get worse?” “Am I doing the right thing getting married?”, “Was having a child the wrong thing?” ,“Am I right to keep working?” I’ve never disclosed my condition to my workplace. I just didn’t want people to treat me differently.
‘My symptoms ebbed and flowed in that 10-year period, I would get little tingles but they tended to recede. I would get another boost of steroids and that would keep the MS at bay. During that time, I started to realise I couldn’t run anymore, I was struggling a bit, starting to drag my leg,’ Martha says. ‘
Discovering the connection between MS and exercise
Around this time, Martha’s husband started a health kick — watching what he was eating and exercising regularly. Martha decided to join him.
‘I thought I’d do it with him and started going to the gym three times a week. After a while I found it strange that I could suddenly walk with greater ease and could break into a 20 metre jog again, going from dragging my leg to being without a disability with no numbness or neurological fatigue was a revelation’.
After a few stressful life events derailed her exercise regime and worsened her symptoms considerably, Martha was watching TV one night when she saw a doctor being interviewed about how much lifestyle can impact MS.
‘My mind became clear; I had a path that I could take that could make a discernible difference. I could now choose to be proactive and throw everything at living better.’
‘All my pursuits were focused on what would serve me physically and spiritually. The challenge was difficult, but nothing meaningful in life is achieved with ease.’
A balancing act
Since then, Martha has worked hard to reintegrate exercise into her schedule and with a scientific background has researched the benefits of exercise physiology: the tremendous effects that it can have on the nervous system and how it can help to repair the body.
‘It can be a very fine balancing act at times, making sure that I am able to fulfill my job obligations as well as finding time for myself and my family and of course cooking. I am generally sound asleep by 9pm-9.30pm at the latest, but before I go to bed, I generally have a clear plan of the tasks and schedule for the next day. The most important part is developing a habit and the rest takes care of itself.’
‘I can see the improvements in my walking and my balance,’ Martha says.
‘For a period, I was struggling to lift my leg to put my foot in my shoe. Two years later, I was able to do that.’
‘I was doing a lot of functional exercises, just lifting my leg up, getting my son to push down on my foot to see if I could push back and even as a 3-year-old he was able to hold my foot down. So I kept practicing and I progressively got better. All the hard work was paying off.’
‘I went from struggling to walk 100 metres to being able to walk 6 kilometres in one go. Even during COVID I was doing clinical Pilates with my physio over Zoom.’ Martha says.
‘Exercise is a really underrated way to manage MS symptoms. Don’t get me wrong, I have not resolved all my physical weaknesses yet, I am a work in progress. But I have seen strength gains, balance improvements and regained function that I thought I had lost for good.
‘In a recent consultation with my neuro physio, she highlighted that I still have spasticity issues with my legs but that I have managed to keep those issues at bay by exercising and building strength and function and hence they are less impactful to me,’ Martha says.
‘Moreover, the neuro physio has managed to teach me movements in a very short space of time that I had forgotten. My body is awakening and it is these moments of insight that are exhilarating and propel me forward to maintain the course. I am now deadlifting more than my own body weight at Pilates, I am absolutely chuffed.
‘If people could bottle what exercise does for your body and brain and sell it, they’d make millions.’