If you’re living with MS, there are a few ways that you can be a good patient and improve your outcomes. One of them is to get regular care from your neurologist and follow your treatment plan. Another way to give yourself the best shot at maintaining the quality of life you want is through your lifestyle and habits.
At the Rocky Mountain MS Center, we focus on maximizing lifelong brain health. Everyone has a different amount of neurological reserve that can get used up over time. Neurological reserve is the ability of the brain to compensate for injury by developing new neuronal pathways. If you have MS, this is the way your brain recovers from relapses and compensates for lesions. The damage from the lesions is still there, but your brain has found another pathway for the nerve signals to take.
However, this reserve isn’t in infinite supply. It gets used up as it compensates for the MS damage. There are many things in life that can use up neurological reserve beyond MS. Head injuries, heart disease, stress, lack of sleep and natural aging all also take a toll on your brain.
MS treatments — disease modifying therapies — are aimed at limiting the amount of damage MS is able to cause, by reducing the inflammation. You can further reduce the stress put on your brain by other health issues (called co-morbid conditions) by taking up a healthier lifestyle. Many healthy lifestyle choices also have the added benefit of helping you to build more neurological reserve. It’s like getting double credit for healthy behaviors.
As an added benefit, regular habits and routines that make us feel good (both physically and mentally) are especially helpful to fall back on in times of uncertainty. In the companion webinar to this article, I talked about how I’ve developed a daily walking routine. I cannot tell you how helpful that has been to my mental health during the pandemic.
Beyond the physical benefits of having an active lifestyle, being in the habit of walking around my block first thing in the morning also reduces the number of decisions I have to make, which reduces my stress. I know that I’m going to wake up, brush my teeth, get dressed, take my walk (it’s about 10 minutes), and then have coffee and breakfast. I don’t have to wake up and wonder how I’m going to get in movement today, my first 1500 steps are completed and that jumpstarts my day. I’m also spending a little time outside, getting fresh air and natural Vitamin D.
These walks have provided so many benefits, wrapped up into one little habit that I don’t even have to think about anymore. But don’t fret if you don’t have well developed habits to fall back on yet — this is also a great time to work on forming the ones you want. Walking is the habit I’ve worked to cultivate – you might choose to focus on a regular seated exercise program or yoga practice, anything that improves your physical and mental well-being.
Before you jump into something new, it helps to take a few minutes to think through it. Do you want to create a new habit (long term behavior) or a goal (short term, action is over once you complete it)?
Take an assessment of where you are today. If your goal is to regularly get in 11,000 steps but your current daily steps only total 3,000 you will want to take it slow and start smaller.
One key to making a habit automatic is to start small enough that you can perform this action consistently, every day. Consider ways to make your new habit easier and think about potential roadblocks ahead of time so you can know how you’ll avoid them.
Consider pairing your new habit with something that you enjoy (listen to a favorite podcast only while working out). I go over even more strategies for forming new habits in my webinar.
It can be hard to form new habits at any time, and especially during a time when routines have been disrupted and uncertainty abounds. Be sure to have compassion for yourself if you stumble when you start. Be proud of yourself for considering a change that will make you healthier in the long term and celebrate every victory no matter how small.
If you can’t keep something up, take a minute to consider what the stumbling block was. Did you increase your goal too quickly? Does the time of day not work for you? Was there something happening beyond your control that threw you off? Are you just having an off day?
None of these are reasons to think that you can’t form the habit you want, none of them are a reason to give up completely. If you need to drop your goal down for a bit, change up the way you’re doing things, or take a day off, you can do it.
Think about why you wanted to form this habit, give yourself a break, and try again tomorrow.
If you need help defining a “why” that motivates you, check this article’s companion webinar at MSCenter.org/empower to learn about the “5 Whys” exercise and many more real life strategies for forming healthier habits.
This article is part of the Rocky Mountain MS Center’s EMPOWER MS Educational Series, which includes articles, webinars and more on related topics. For more information, please visit MSCenter.org/empower.