"You HAVE to keep moving. Movement is essential for individuals with Multiple Sclerosis. But you have to find what works for you. If it’s weightlifting, that’s great. If it’s playing tennis once a week, and biking the other days, that’s great, too. Whatever works for you and your life, just do it. Yes, there will be days when your body is saying absolutely no way! And that’s ok, I have them too! Just keep movement a primary part of your life."
Meet Alissa Frazier, a fellow personal trainer and coach, and fan of all things iron and grit. As most professional women are these days, she's pretty busy, between her mental health counseling work and her fitness and nutrition coaching, plus making time to stay fit for herself. But there’s one thing that sets her apart, and makes her a hero in my book: she is doing it all while living with Multiple Sclerosis.
How did you find out that you had Multiple Sclerosis (MS)?
I was diagnosed with MS in 2009. I was experiencing symptoms that I thought were totally separate, including vision issues and an odd electrical feeling down my spine. After several weeks of the vision issues not getting better, I made an appointment with an eye doctor to get checked out. He said my vision was fine, but after hearing my symptoms told me to get further tests, including an MRI, which I thought was weird and a bit concerning. He called with the results several days later, saying I didn’t have a brain tumor (thanks for the reassurance, doc!) but I needed to get to a neurologist pronto. After many tests, some routine, some downright awful, all signs pointed to Multiple Sclerosis.
How has having MS affected your exercise routine?
I didn’t start really focusing on working out and weight training until a year or so after my diagnosis. The first few years of having MS I still felt relatively normal, except for my daily medicine injections. I first dabbled with running, and ran a ridiculous amount of small races (5k/10ks) and four half marathons. I was also able to learn how to use weights and Kettlebells. I eventually hired a few online coaches to really figure out my way around and I fell in love with the iron.
Since my MS has changed over the years, it definitely affects my training a lot more now. Having MS makes my body very sensitive to heat, because heat brings back my old symptoms (something that all individuals with MS deal with), so I need to be careful of my body temperature during workouts or my vision will start to go very fuzzy, my legs will become numb and tingly, and I’ll get woozy. There are also general disruptions that occur, like when I’ve had my relapses, I had to take a significant amount of time off from training and basically doing anything. Or if I am dealing with a great amount of fatigue, I’ll need to take a day here and there to just rest.
What's your favorite way to exercise?
Oh, that’s hard! I’ve done so much! I’ve tried running, Muay Thai (Thai kickboxing), weightlifting, and now CrossFit. I’m not sure that I have a favorite, since they all had their advantages and disadvantages.
However, I do have a special place in my heart for the barbell. There is something so empowering about walking up to a heavy weight that is intimidating, getting your mind right, and being able to lift it. Which is probably why I really like CrossFit right now. It is an awesome feeling seeing a super hard workout planned for you, that you are questioning yourself on, then being able to do it.
Yes, somedays I have to modify the workout for whatever reason, either MS or still working up to the weight, but that’s ok. I can tailor anything to meet me where I am at that day.
Have you always loved fitness? What sports (or activities) did you do growing up?
I had always been a relatively active kid and teen. I was on the tennis team in high school and played basketball. I have memories of playing HORSE with my dad in our driveway and baseball in our backyard. In my college years I didn’t really get into working out as much as I would have liked, but I was still active, going on hikes, walking as much as I could, etc. I would go to the gym, but mostly run. I would do a few machines but never really knew what I was doing. But I never shied away from movement or activities.
Who inspires you?
I love hearing stories from other athletes and individuals who are managing chronic illnesses in their daily lives. Those stories tend to really give me hope that managing and balancing everything is possible.
This is going to sound cliché, but my mom also inspires me. She was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease several years after I was diagnosed with MS, and I watch her manage her house and all of her ‘motherly’ duties still while trying to deal with everything that comes with Parkinson’s, which is amazing.
What do you do on the days where your body is telling you that you just can't work out that day?
Those happen a lot! First, I check in with myself and make sure that I am being honest about my reasoning for not wanting to work out. I want to make sure I’m not just trying to get myself out of it, when I could really work out.
But if there are days where something hurts, or I am other-worldly exhausted, then I’ll give myself a rest day. Going into a workout in a state like that is asking for an injury. If I am already going to be compromising my form because I’m tired, then it’s not worth it. If I still want to move a little bit, then I’ll do something small with a Kettlebell or a bodyweight complex. Usually I’ll give myself a rest day.
What advice would you give to people about staying active while managing an illness like MS?
You HAVE to keep moving. Movement is essential for individuals with MS. It can be helpful in so many ways, including reducing pain, inflammation, and improving quality of life. Once you stop moving, then joints can start to stiffen and ache, muscles can lose their tone and strength and the chances of pain/immobility can increase.
But within the ‘movement’ umbrella, you have to find what works for you. If it’s weightlifting, that’s great. If it’s playing tennis once a week, and biking the other days, that’s great, too. If it’s walking every morning, that’s great too. Whatever works for you and your life, just do it. Yes, there will be days when your body is saying absolutely no way! And that’s ok, I have them too! Just keep movement a primary part of your life.
What role does nutrition play for you in terms of how you feel each day? Why did you choose to follow AIP?
Nutrition now plays a huge role in my life now. I follow the Autoimmune Protocol (AIP), which is a strict form of Paleo that is focused on eating nutrient dense foods and eliminating inflammatory foods. I have been following Paleo for about a year, and AIP for about 3 months. Since starting AIP I feel considerably better. Many of the symptoms I dealt with daily are gone, including pain, fatigue, and numbness/tingling/burning. My energy has greatly improved as well, which has afforded me the opportunity to train more!
I chose to finally switch to AIP from Paleo because I was fed up with feeling horrible every day. I had known about AIP for several years and kept telling myself I would do it, but never did. I finally reached my breaking point and felt that I couldn’t go through the day how I had been anymore. I needed to do something to make it better.
Anything to add?
I encourage anyone dealing with MS or a chronic illness to not sit back and let their disease happen to them. I’ve learned that mindset and attitude is everything. While it can be difficult to have a positive attitude while dealing with MS, it’s not impossible. I certainly have my days where I break down and let myself cry, because after all, this is hard! But I pick myself up at the end. I’ve found many people to talk to through who also have MS in the online space, and that has been priceless.
Want to connect with Alissa? You can find her online at www.Liss-MS.com, on Instagram @Liss.MS, and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/AlissaMS.