I spent a lot of time in the gym when I was teenager. Initially it was more of a social thing, but slowly exercise became a way of life for me. I imagined myself strong and healthy, and assumed I'd always be able to go for runs and lift heavy weights. What I never considered at 16 was that I'd soon be diagnosed with a condition that would force me to rethink exercise entirely.
I didn't know it at the time, but I had actually been having multiple sclerosis (MS) symptoms since the beginning of primary school. I often felt very weak and was always running to the loo. I also didn't walk like everyone else. I was more unstable and tripped over my own feet while on the playground. As I got older, my symptoms got worse. When I was 17, my eyes went blurry while driving through the city. My vision eventually returned, but I was in and out of hospital for the next couple years.
At first, they thought I had sickle cell anaemia, then endometriosis and then, when the pain started, I had my appendix taken out. It took a really long time to be diagnosed, so I was relieved when I finally had an explanation for all my strange symptoms. But it was also difficult. I had just started university, and I struggled to balance my studies and social life with my symptoms. MS is really unpredictable, and I often had to leave parties early and cancel plans because of my fatigue.
But even though I had to sacrifice being social all the time, I made sure I had enough energy to exercise regularly. Initially, I thought I could beat MS if I was strong enough, if I just pushed myself harder and lifted weights more often. But MS doesn't just go away. It's a progressive condition that's different for everyone. For me, MS has mostly affected my legs. But even though I'm no longer able to walk or stand, it doesn't really affect me as a person.
Sometimes my son Dante notices people staring at me and I know it bugs him, but I want to show him that life only limits you if you let it. I may need a bit of help getting up the stairs, but that's not going to stop me from doing things I love. If anything, I'm more motivated to show just how much I can achieve. I've continued with my weight training, but now I mostly train at an accessible gym with equipment that I can use while in my wheelchair.
Exercise makes such a big difference to my symptoms. Along with weight training, I also go swimming three times a week. Getting in the water is like a freedom for me. It gives me a chance to get out of my chair for an hour, relax and socialise with new people. Being active not only improves my physical strength, but also helps with my emotional wellbeing. It keeps me sane and makes me feel like I'm doing something proactive to fight MS.
I've learned through my journey that everyone with MS can benefit from exercise, whether it's cycling, gardening, stretching or breathing exercises. That's why I teamed up with Dom Thorpe, a personal trainer who specialises in working with people with MS, to help make the MS Society's new exercise videos.
I wanted to show that there are ways you can strengthen your muscles and get your heart rate up while also living with fatigue, limited mobility and balance problems. And that's what the charity's MS Active Together campaign is all about - raising awareness of the benefits of physical activity for people with MS, and how even light exercise can make a difference.
Of course, that's not to say it's going to be easy. Doing regular exercise with MS can be tough, and there are many barriers that I and others will face - whether that's inaccessible facilities, fluctuating symptoms, or feeling self-conscious. But when my MS challenges me, I embrace the fear of failing and do it anyway. MS is not a death sentence. You just have to keep adapting and learning to do things differently.
If you want to get active with MS, take the first step with the MS Society's new exercise videos available on their website.
HuffPost UK Lifestyle has launched EveryBody, a new section calling for better equality and inclusivity for people living with disability and invisible illness. The aim is to empower those whose voices are not always heard and redefine attitudes to identity, lifestyle and ability in 2017. We'll be covering all manner of lifestyle topics - from health and fitness to dating, sex and relationships.
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