As my wife, Kendra, and I travel the country for MS Fitness Challenge (MSFC), we meet many inspiring people who have decided to take their multiple sclerosis (MS) diagnosis and challenge it. The MSFC is our charitable program that matches people with MS with personal trainers for a free half-hour of individualized training once a week for 12 consecutive weeks.
One person we met recently is Karen, who was a fitness trainer before being diagnosed with MS. She is now not only an MSFC participant, but she has also joined our team of trainers as a certified MS Fitness & Wellness Specialist. Karen will be working with others who have MS to guide their way.
I asked Karen about her experience with MS and with the MS Fitness Challenge.
Karen: For 15 years, I served as a certified fitness instructor. In March 2015, I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis after becoming violently ill over a period of several weeks.
I have gone from being bedridden to wheelchair-bound. Then, through fitness, I progressed to walking with a cane — then without. I began training with Mark Mueller, MSFC director of trainers, even before enrolling in the 12-week MSFC. Before I started training with Mark, I experienced problems with balance, stiffness, weakness, fatigue, and difficulty walking.
When I began working with Mark, he quickly started to pick up on the fine details of my existing deficits. He then honed in on the greatest areas of need, which for me was my balance and right-side strength. He also recognized the way the disease has in some ways caused a lack of confidence in my ability to perform the way I used to when I served as a fitness instructor. His encouragement has helped me to realize that, while I have lost some of my former strength and functionality, I need to continue to believe in myself to progress.
I am excited to be participating in the current MS Fitness Challenge here in Elizabethtown, Pennsylvania, and later working with others with MS. I believe the MS Fitness Challenge will hold up a yardstick and allow me to be accountable for continuing to improve on my deficits. It will provide an opportunity to allow me to push myself in those areas — both physical and mental — that are still weak. While I will continue to push myself to greater and greater heights, I also look forward to Mark’s encouragement along the way.
David Lyons: How difficult is it to work out with MS?
Karen: For me, it’s not too difficult, because I have a background as a fitness instructor. However, now I have some limitations. For instance, walking on a treadmill is not that difficult, but walking without holding on to the side rails is a challenge because of my balance issues.
DL: What is your ultimate fitness goal?
Karen: My ultimate goal would be to return to teaching group fitness classes. I want all people to see the importance of fitness in their everyday lives.
DL: What is your daily training like?
Karen: My workout includes cardiovascular training with a treadmill, elliptical trainer, or bike, or sometimes just going for a walk. I also focus on building either my upper body or lower body by using free weights or weight machines. I also complete daily stretching exercises at home that were provided by my trainer. Those exercises, which were tailored for me, include leg lifts to improve my lower body tone and flexibility, walking toe to heel to improve balance, and throwing a ball to practice fine motor skills.
DL: What type of nutritional program do you follow?
Karen: First and foremost, I drink lots of water. My diet consists of vegetables and fruits, complex carbohydrates that are made up of a variety of whole grains, and adequate amounts of protein to build muscle. I also eat almonds and other nuts, and I limit saturated fats.
DL: What do your friends and family think about you being a fitness trainer with MS?
Karen: My friends and family are very supportive. When they learned that I’d become certified to train people with MS, they thought it was awesome. I feel good about this, too, because it allows me to continue learning about MS and also to give something back.
DL: Why did you get involved in supporting the MS Fitness Challenge?
Karen: I first found out about my fitness trainer, Mark Mueller, through a local newspaper story about how he focuses on training people with MS. Without this awareness, I might have completed my sessions at the rehab hospital and thought, ‘this is as good as it gets.’ But of course, it can get so much better through additional practice and training. Mark is just fabulous at what he does because he pays attention to the finer details of our sessions. He obviously invests time in planning those sessions, and he always has a plan for how to take it to the next level. He truly is a fitness trainer’s trainer. Eventually, during our training sessions, Mark introduced me to the MS Fitness Challenge.
I think the reason I got involved in the MS Fitness Challenge is to become physically and mentally stronger. I wanted to enhance my level of fitness and overall strength.
DL: What are you doing to help others with MS?
Karen: I talk about my MS, hoping my experiences can help other people. Also, I have become a certified MS Fitness and Wellness Specialist. I hope to work with other MS clients to help guide their way to a healthier lifestyle.
DL: What would you tell others with MS to help them reach their fitness goals?
Karen: Stick with your goals, no matter how small or large they may be. Keep a positive attitude. Find another person with MS to work with. Most of all, take time to laugh.
DL: Karen is both an inspiration to people with MS and to fitness trainers who strive to make a difference in their clients’ lives. We all know that there is no one-size-fits-all workout routine or meal plan for anyone with or without MS. But when battling a disease like ours, we need to be motivated, educated, and guided with a program that specializes in our specific needs.
Photos provided by David Lyons.