Skip to navigation Skip to content

Exercise — or not — in Water


In this article

Benefits of aquatic exercises

The unique qualities of water provide exceptional benefits to people with MS. Water helps people with MS move in ways they may not be able to on land. Here is why:

Buoyancy: The feeling of being lighter in the water; of floating.

  • Provides support for weak limbs.
  • Movement takes less effort. A greater range of motion can be achieved.
  • Promotes muscle relaxation.

Viscosity: The sensation that there is resistance to your movements; that you move slower through the water.

  • The resistance of water can be used to improve muscle strength.Slower movement in water provides an opportunity to work on skills such as balance and coordination which may be harder to do on land.

Hydrostatic pressure: The sensation of compression while the body is in the water. Pressure increases with depth.

  • Compression can provide support for standing activities, such as walking, with less effort than on land.

Temperature control

  • Cooler water can help maintain lower core body temperature even during vigorous activity. This is especially helpful for people with heat sensitivity issues.


Aquatic exercise - more benefits

Improves overall physical function including walking, mobility, flexibility, balance and endurance.

May change sensory input. The feeling of decreased weight may lead to a decrease in pain and improvement of other sensory perceptions. These changes may lead to greater ease and range of movement.

Provides a social network. Aquatic groups provide opportunities for social connection and a support system to stay involved in exercise.

Motivation. The positive results of aquatic exercise may also help people with MS stick with it.

Improves mood. Exercise may ease depression and increase self-esteem. Water techniques may also reduce stress and promote relaxation.

Types of aquatic activity

These days, aquatic classes may have a variety of names which offer different techniques. Most can address balance, strengthening, stretching and relaxation.

Some techniques may be good for particular issues:

  • Balance exercises
    • Ai Chi (Water Tai Chi)
    • Halliwick techniques
  • Relaxation and stretching
    • Stretching
    • Ai chi
    • Aquatic body work: Watsu, Jahara, or Healing Dance
  • Strengthening exercises
    • Deep or shallow water techniques
    • Bad Ragaz Ring Method
    • Use of drag or resistance equipment

Sample aquatic exercises

A cautionary word: it is always best to have direct training by a physical therapist or a professional instructor before trying a new exercise. Do not perform any movements your healthcare providers have told you not to do.

Marching—stand with your side to the pool wall. Hold onto the wall if needed for balance. Lift one leg up and down, then the other. Repeat 5 to 8 times.

Side leg lifts—stand facing the side of the pool. Hold onto the edge of the pool if needed for balance. Lift leg out to the side 5 to 8 times. Do the other leg.

Back leg lifts—stand facing the side of the pool. Hold onto the edge of the pool if needed for balance. Lift leg straight back 5 to 8 times. DO NOT arch the back. Do the other leg.

Runner's stretch—stand facing the side of the pool. Hold the edge of pool for balance. Step one leg back. Both feet flat on floor. Keep the heel of the back leg on the floor. Bend the knee of the forward leg. Lean forward from the ankles. You should feel a stretch in the lower leg or calf muscles. Hold for 20-30 seconds. Do 1 to 2 times. Switch legs.

Whatever the activity or your level of ability, you CAN have FUN in the water!

Author: Michele Harrison.
Contributing editors: Can Do Multiple Sclerosis


  • The Multiple Sclerosis Association of America’s Introduction to MS Aquatic Fitness video demonstrates a wide variety of shallow-water exercises designed specifically for the MS community, addressing areas of balance, strength, range of motion, mobility, and aerobic endurance.
  • The Aquatic Physical Therapy and MS video, produced by Laura Diamond, MS, PT, Diamond Physical Therapy Associates, PC, and Jill McElligott, PT, DPT, offers an introduction to the potential benefits of aquatic physical therapy for managing MS symptoms and enhancing fitness. It also provides interviews with a neurologist, a physiatrist and an aquatic physical therapist, all of whom specialize in working with people with MS, as well as with people with MS about their perspectives on aquatics exercise.


The National MS Society is Here to Help

Need More Information?

We Are Here

Our MS Navigators help identify solutions and provide access to the resources you are looking for. Call 1-800-344-4867 or contact us online.

Contact Us

Contact Us
Newly Diagnosed
If you or somone close to you has recently been diagnosed, access our MS information and resources.

Start Here

Start Here