To Bolster Energy and Beat MS Fatigue, Learn How to Rest
It’s important to take breaks, but what shape they take will vary depending on your needs.
By Quinn Phillips
Medically Reviewed by Samuel Mackenzie, MD, PhD
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Most people with multiple sclerosis (MS) end up dealing, at some point, with fatigue — whether it’s occasional or constant, mild or debilitating. Several different aspects of self-care can minimize fatigue, including budgeting enough time for sleep, getting enough exercise, and following a nutritious diet.
But for most people with multiple sclerosis, fatigue is a symptom to be managed, not entirely prevented — which means that resting is another important aspect of self-care.
There isn’t, of course, any single right or wrong way to rest. What kind of rest you need will depend on your level of fatigue and what factors are contributing to it. But there are certain guidelines you can follow to ensure that you take breaks when you need them the most, and that you get the most benefit possible from them.
Here are some ideas from rehabilitation experts on when and how to rest, and why rest matters so much when you have MS.
For Energy Later, Refill Your Tank Now
MS is different from many other chronic diseases in that it affects a large number of people at younger ages, when they’re in earlier stages of their careers and, in many cases, have young families, notes Anna Tipton, doctor of physical therapy, an occupational therapist at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center Outpatient Rehabilitation Services in Columbus. The need to fulfill many roles at this age — employee, parent, partner, friend — combined with the widespread incidence of fatigue among people with MS, often makes it essential to step back and evaluate how you go about your daily activities.
“We talk a lot about energy conservation and work simplification,” says Tipton. “You have to put energy into your tank to expend some energy later.”
In practice, this means both limiting unwanted exertion and taking breaks, especially when a demanding task or event is planned for later in the day. For example, she says, if you have evening plans with friends, you probably shouldn’t try to go grocery shopping and bake a dessert that same morning.
Busyness and Hurrying Isn't Good for Anyone
People with MS are inevitably battling a culture of hurriedness that isn’t healthy for anyone, let alone people with chronic diseases, notes , a doctor of physical therapy and a clinical professor in the departments of rehabilitation science and neurology and neurosurgery at the University at Buffalo in New York.
“We get up tired, we start work at 7 a.m., we eat on the run, we eat lunch at a meeting,” Bennett laments. “We don’t do a good job in our society with giving our physical, as well as mental, aspects of functioning time to rest.”
She notes that in the United States, resting is often associated with laziness, while in many other countries, it’s built into the wider culture.
“We all should build in a 20- to 30-minute rest period once or twice a day,” says Bennett. “We would actually probably be much more effective in the work that we do.”
Learn to Rest Before Your Tank Is Empty
It’s important not to wait until you’re totally exhausted to take a break, Tipton emphasizes. “At that point, your tank is empty,” she says.
A better approach is to build breaks into your day, either on a set schedule or simply as part of your habits. Habits take time to build, though, so it’s a good idea to start taking breaks in a structured way.
What probably won’t work, Tipton says, is simply taking breaks when you have time or when it feels convenient.
“Nobody feels like they have time to rest or take breaks,” she notes, so if this is your plan, your breaks probably won’t happen. “You always think, ‘I’ll do that later.’”
Instead, if you’re working an eight-hour day, “Maybe you’re stopping every two hours” for a few minutes, Tipton suggests. If you’re worried that you’ll forget to take breaks at your appointed times, set reminders on your phone or computer. If you’d rather take a less regimented approach, you can take a break every time you stop working to do something else — such as every time you get up to use the restroom, or before or after meals or snacks.
But Bennett stresses that you may also need to take unscheduled breaks if you become especially fatigued, or if your balance has deteriorated and you feel unsteady. Even a brief break can help.
How to Rest: Nap, Stretch, or Meditate
So what does resting actually mean? There isn’t any single definition, but both Bennett and Tipton have suggestions for what to try, and what not to do.
“It kind of depends on what’s causing your fatigue,” says Bennett. For example, if you’re not sleeping well at night — possibly because of an MS-related issue like urinary incontinence — you should consider taking a nap during the day. This could mean just lying on a couch for 20 minutes, or it could mean sleeping in your bed for 45 to 50 minutes.
What kind of nap is best for you will depend on how tired you are, and whether napping seems to interfere with your sleep schedule. “You need to make sure the quality of sleep at night is still okay,” Tipton emphasizes. It’s also important, she says, to take a nap “before you feel absolutely exhausted.”
But resting doesn’t have to involve napping, and usually doesn’t. Just five minutes of deep breathing while sitting in a chair, says Bennett, can help restore your energy level. “You can even close your eyes and do some meditation,” she adds, which can include listening to calming sounds or relaxing music if it helps you mentally escape your everyday environment.
Tipton suggests stretching or doing yoga as other stress-reducing activities to try during your breaks. She’s also a fan of guided meditation, which involves listening to a recording of someone telling you to relax various areas of your body and visualize certain images.
“I think it’s good to let your brain relax” in addition to your body, she says — since it’s difficult to let your thoughts wander when you’re listening to a recording. Such recordings are widely available for free (and for purchase) online, Tipton notes.
How NOT to Rest: Watch TV, Talk, Use Your Phone
While many different activities qualify as resting, there are some that do not.
“I definitely wouldn’t watch the news,” says Bennett, since that involves significant brain stimulation and may raise your stress level. Even watching a television program that puts you at ease — such as a familiar comedy show — isn’t the same as resting.
“Laughter is very good to increase oxygenation throughout your tissues,” she says, but it doesn’t put your brain in low gear, which is the goal of resting.
Similarly, Bennett says, you shouldn’t be talking with someone else — in person or on the phone — or using digital devices for communication or browsing of any kind, since the mental processing needed for these tasks means that you’re not really resting.
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