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Those diagnosed with MS finding help at Wellness Center of Cape Coral

By Staff | Aug 31, 2011

The Wellness Center of Cape Coral began offering classes more than a year ago to help those who have been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis improve their balance and overall well-being.

After the Multiple Sclerosis Society sought out the Wellness Center and found it adequate to fit the needs of those diagnosed with MS, Philly Hignett began teaching water aerobics and yoga 18 months ago.

“They provided the training once they found the facility to be adequate for their needs,” Hignett said about the MS Society.

Yoga is offered every Monday and a water aerobics class is offered on Tuesdays and Thursdays at the Wellness Center.

Hignett said she modifies everything she does in the classes to accommodate everyone because the disease affects everybody in a different way.

“Our classes have to work for everybody,” she said.

Although she has seen classes as large as 20 individuals, the average class size is between eight and 12.

Two water aerobics classes are held at the same time, so participants can use the therapy pool or the lap pool because of the different water temperatures.

Hignett said water aerobics provides those with MS additional range of motion and freedom to move because they are buoyant. Some of those who cannot do jumping jacks on land, she said, can do them while in the pool.

Fort Myers resident Martha Hannigan was diagnosed with MS in 1990.

She said she has accepted that MS is a part of her life and she knows that slipping and losing her balance is going to happen.

“When you first learn about it, it is very scary because you don’t know what you will be able to accomplish,” Hannigan said. “You have to learn about how it is going to affect you, because everyone is totally different. You have to know what is happening in your own body at that time.”

She travels from Fort Myers to Cape Coral twice a week to take the water aerobics class and has done so since its inception.

“It helps immensely,” she said. “It really helps so much as far as balance and feeling so much better.”

The stigma of exercising was much different when Hannigan was first diagnosed. She said that doctors told her not to exercise because individuals with MS were not supposed to let their body overheat.

“Now they are saying that exercise is one of the most important things,” Hannigan said.

When Hannigan began taking the water aerobics class she said they were asked to stand on a pool noodle in the water, which she was able to accomplish in three days.

“It was amazing that we would be able to acquire that balance in the water,” she said. “It really has strengthened me so much.”

Her balance has improved because they spend time working on their core.

Now Hannigan is doing jumping jacks in the water, step and weighted exercises, along with swimming the length of the pool.

“Philly really keeps us going,” Hannigan said, adding that it is really great to be able to do certain things that her disease restricted her from doing before. “Working on the core of our body for our balance is one of the most important things that she has been able to help all of us with.”

Mary Lou Szymkiewicz, a Cape Coral resident who was diagnosed with MS two years ago, decided to become very proactive from the get-go, which led her to taking water aerobics and yoga classes at the Wellness Center.

Within the first five months of discovering her diagnosis, Szymkiewicz began taking the classes.

“They are extremely helpful,” she said about the classes. “Since taking these classes, I have learned how to keep my balance.”

Szymkiewicz said they do things like walking with one foot in front of the other to train themselves how to walk in a straight line during water aerobics.

“When I close my eyes, I go way to the right,” she said about her balance.

Kevin Berry, who is also a Cape Coral resident, started attending both of the classes when they were first offered to help improve his balance and ability to walk, which are the two major issues he faces with the disease.

He was diagnosed with MS in 1989.

“Water aerobics is beneficial because about 85 percent of people with MS have problems with heat tolerance,” Berry said. “The hotter the core temperature gets the weaker they get.”

The opportunity to exercise in the water, Berry said, allows individuals to exercise longer because of the cooler water temperatures. The buoyancy of the water, he said, also is beneficial because it allows those with MS the ability to do more with the water supporting them.

The yoga class, which is an hour long, only has 30 minutes of actual physical movement. Fifteen minutes are spent at the beginning of the class to set up and make sure everyone is comfortable, and another 15 minutes is spent at the end of the class for meditation.

One of the major benefits Hignett sees in those who take her yoga class is the ability for them to slow down and become more aware of what their body is feeling.

In addition, the class helps them develop deeper breathing, improve their balance, along with stretching out their muscles.

“A small amount of exercise without overdoing it helps relieve fatigue,” Hignett said.

The yoga class, which Szymkiewicz takes once a week, helps her because it stretches her tendons, muscles and ligaments. She said yoga has increased her balance when she knows she is going to fall.

Szymkiewicz said if she misses a week of classes, she begins to lose her balance again.

The yoga class is also beneficial for Berry because it helps him utilize the muscles that are not used all the time, therefore improving his balance.

MS has caused Berry to use a cane to walk all the time, along with using a wheelchair or scooter when he is faced with long distances.

When Berry attends the classes on a weekly basis, it provides him with the ability to get out of the car and walk in and out of a building without using his cane.

“It increases my stamina and strength,” he said about the classes.

When he misses a week of class, his balance and walking ability decreases.

The social aspect is another benefit for those who take the class.

“Everybody laughs and talks,” Hignett said, because they are all in the same boat.

Szymkiewicz said the classes help her emotionally because she has the opportunity to intermingle with people who are faced with the same illness.

Since Hignett began teaching the class she has learned much about herself and how to become tolerant.

“I am learning how strong these people can be,” Hignett said, adding that “their human spirit of wanting to keep going is also amazing.”