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Pathways to Wellness: Hydrotherapy and Ai Chi

By Kerri Cechovic | In 1992, the RMMSC began offering hydrotherapy classes for people living with MS and other neurological conditions. Michele Harrison, Rocky Mountain MS Center Hydrotherapy Coordinator and Licensed Physical Therapist, has provided both Hydrotherapy and Ai Chi classes to hundreds of people for the past 17 years.

Hydrotherapy is exercise in the water and includes stretching, balance activities, endurance work, and strength work for all parts of the body. Ai Chi is a form of hydrotherapy and involves a pattern of slow, gentle sweeping motions. It’s focused on weight shifting, balancing, coordination, stability, and posture.

People are going through many of the same challenges. They’re sharing their experiences with one another and they’re gaining new perspectives and ideas about staying active.  — Michele Harrison, Hydrotherapy Coordinator

Rehabilitation and wellness approaches like hydrotherapy and Ai Chi have gained more attention and interest over the last several decades as the recognition of the importance of an active lifestyle for people living with MS has only increased. In part, that’s because an ever-growing body of research shows us that staying active and engaged in the community supports maximizing overall brain health and neurological reserve to increase the brain’s resilience and help slow the impacts of MS.

Many research studies demonstrate that exercise is a critical fuel for neuroplasticity — the brain’s ability to build new neural pathways to adapt to changing demands and maximize overall function. We know that exercise increases levels of brain-derived neurotropic factor (BDNF) and other growth factors increase the brain’s neurological reserve and ability to compensate for damage.

While this extensive and ever-growing body of research is clear, the challenge for the majority of us is adopting an exercise program and then sticking with it. And it becomes even more difficult if you’re battling MS-related fatigue.

“What I’ve witnessed over the years is that participants are much more likely to stay consistently involved if they know there’s a group of people counting on you to be there,” says Michele. “People are going through many of the same challenges. They’re sharing their experiences with one another and they’re gaining new perspectives and ideas about staying active.”

“We focus on incorporating movements to improve a person’s ability to perform daily activities – walking, balancing, transferring, and other daily activities,” explains Michele. And over the years, Michele has consistently incorporated new ideas and techniques to maximize the benefits of the exercise program for participants. “We also know that interval training is important, so we always do our cardiovascular (aerobic) exercises before we do any strength training. Research tells us that chemicals are released when you are doing cardio work and that helps keep the brain as malleable as possible.”

Jane Smoak was diagnosed with MS in 2014 at the age of 59. “Like so many others, I was having increasing heat sensitivity, balance issues, and extreme fatigue that was limiting the amount of activity I could endure,” says Jane. “My limbs always felt like they had heavy weights strapped to them and I was struggling to pick up my feet and lift my arms. I was not using a cane or walker, but had become afraid that I was slowly losing my ability to walk independently.”

“My balance and energy level have improved as well as my mood and I have even made new friends,” says Jane. “I’m not saying that hydrotherapy is a cure-all for MS. I am saying that for me, it has helped me get through some of the most difficult challenges of the past four years.”

Ai Chi offers people different tools and techniques for managing stress and relieving anxiety. Developing these coping tools is important to living well with MS over the long haul and improving quality of life overall. The program provides a mindfulness and meditation “variety pack” of sorts – providing a wide range of tools in the tool belt for stress management.

“People take the mindfulness and meditation strategies from the pool into their daily life and that is so inspiring to see,” says Michele.

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