How to promote healthy lifestyles among MS patients

April 28, 2017 Bobbie (Barbara) J. Severson, ARNP


All of us struggle with maintaining a healthy lifestyle, and it can be even tougher if you have a disease like multiple sclerosis.  A recent study published in the Journal of MS Care looked at the best ways to change unhealthy behavior by asking people with MS what they thought would work for them.

The researchers sat down with focus groups and did one-on-one interviews with people living with MS to identify what would help or hinder them from doing things such as improving sleep habits and nutrition and getting more exercise. 

Five themes emerged: 

1. Roles, priorities, preferences: Some study participants enjoyed group exercise classes because they motivated them to participate in physical activity. The classes also allowed them to tap others with MS for health advice and do things like share healthy recipes. 

Other participants had to take care of kids or other loved ones, and this meant making convenience a priority. This led sometimes to eating unhealthy foods or being sedentary and watching TV.

2. Sense of duty: Participants who were motivated to adopt healthy behaviors often felt obligated or that they “ought to” because of their MS.

3. Fatigue and limited mobility: These problems were often described as interfering with healthy behaviors. Fatigue resulted in more time spent sleeping, decreased motivation to go grocery shopping and less energy to cook healthy meals. Mobility and balance problems also made participants worry about whether they could walk outside or cook safely. 

Alternately, some participants said fatigue and mobility problems motivated them to do healthy things like eat less red meat, reduce food portions and consume less sugar. For some, the desire not to become dependent on others motivated them to adopt healthy habits.

4. Taking control: Some participants adopted healthy habits   as a way to take control in the face of the unpredictable nature of multiple sclerosis. They also believed that healthy behavior would prevent or stave off physical decline.

5. Resiliency: Participants who were motivated to do healthy things were seen as having a sense of resiliency. As one participant said, “I have MS but it doesn’t have me.” 

Staying positive and engaged helped people cope with their symptoms and promoted healthy habits. Participants learned that maintaining a healthy lifestyle meant planning ahead and being organized. One person said this required organizing life at a level of detail most people probably weren’t accustomed to.

Participants said effective strategies for helping people make lifestyle changes include:

  • Discussing the benefits of healthy behaviors
  • Developing action plans
  • Accommodating the preferences of people with MS
  • Addressing fatigue and mobility problems
  • Talking to experts about specific patient needs

Previous research has indicated that people with MS who believe they can influence events and their outcomes may be more likely to stick with their treatment plans. This study shows the value of setting priorities when it comes to making lifestyle changes and personalizing plans for success.

Future research should look further at the best ways providers can encourage healthy behavior by understanding a patient’s preferences, symptoms, psychological traits and social situation.

To learn more, read the full article: A Qualitative Study of Health Behaviors in Adults with Multiple Sclerosis 

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