539. I remember the number well. That was the number of steps that I had taken, according to my new Fitbit One, on my first day participating in a study on the effect of fitness wearables on folks with multiple sclerosis. The recommended number of steps per day: 10,000.
The study was very simple. Folks who had 3 stars on PatientsLikeMe, who had MS, were invited to be a part of a study where they would send you a Fitbit One and your job was simply to wear it all day, every day, for 3 weeks, and answer some survey questions about your experience once a week.
When I received the tracker in the mail, I felt like I was stealing. I couldn’t imagine that any information they would get from me would be terribly helpful, let alone worth $100, but I really wanted a tracker. I desperately wanted to lose weight, and I could never have afforded a fitness tracker without the study. My monthly disability stipend from Social Security barely paid for Medicare and my medication. I was very excited to start using it.
Improvement #1: Sleep
I learned that I was not sleeping soundly at night, thanks to the activity tracker showing me how much sleep I was actually getting. It turns out I was regularly getting up to use the restroom about three times a night, and that I tossed and turned all night long.
This lead to a change in my medicine time and drinking habits. Because I was on some twice-daily medication at the time, I was taking one pill every 12 hours. I tended to take my first pill around 11 a.m. and the second at bedtime (around 11 p.m.), with a full glass of water. I changed things up, and took my first pill with breakfast around 9 a.m., and my nighttime pills at 9 p.m. I didn’t drink any more water at night after taking my pills. Unsurprisingly, I made fewer trips to the bathroom.
I also got a new pillow, which helped reduce tossing and turning.
Conclusion: More and better sleep = less fatigue during the day.
Improvement #2: Movement
I had no idea how sedentary I was when the study began. I still can viscerally feel how upset I was when I saw that I had only walked 539 steps out of 10,000. I was embarrassed, angry with myself, and knew I could do better. I was ready for the challenge to reach 10,000 steps.
I decided to walk to the nearby grocery store every day. Getting there and back was around 2500 steps. I also took the stairs more often and even bugged my husband to take me to the gym. Regardless of how much I tried, though, I never hit the 10,000 mark — not in those first three weeks or even since then. My personal best is around 8500, but it’s still a big improvement over 539.
At first, it was very hard for me to break 3000 because my fatigue was terrible. Fortunately, when you keep trying, day by day, you build endurance. Little by little, it got easier to get to the store and carry more food back. In short, as I got stronger, my fatigue got weaker, and I became more empowered than depressed.
Conclusion: More movement = improved endurance = less fatigue and better moods.
Improvement #3: Nutrition
The Fitbit One comes with a USB dongle that syncs the fitness tracker to your computer. This, in turn, sends information to the Fitbit website and any other authorized websites including PatientsLikeMe.
You absolutely can log your food on the Fitbit website, but I’m the sort of geek who wants access to the largest database of food possible, and the ability to track nutrients as well as calories and activity. I was stoked to find out that you can sync your Fitbit account to your MyFitnessPal account, and in doing so, have a better ability to track your nutrition.
I’ve been logging my food on and off since I was eight years old, and it was old hat to me to input what I’d eaten. What was interesting and helpful for me was seeing how my steps correlated to how many calories I was actually burning. MyFitnessPal told me the amount of calories I had left for the day and what types of nutrients my body needed.
I realized that I was not eating at regular intervals, and that I was terribly deficient in getting the right amount of protein. We were eating fast food way more than I care to admit, in part because doing the dishes seemed like an insurmountable task with how tired I always was. No wonder I had a hard time thinking straight! My blood sugar was all over the place.
Seeing the evidence in front of me helped me to make better food choices. I started eating greek yogurt or oatmeal at breakfast, within an hour of waking up, and having a “second breakfast” about 3 hours later of a protein and fiber bar. I started making myself salads or toasting my sandwiches instead of grilling them in butter at lunch, and, occasionally, I made green smoothies as an afternoon snack. Lastly, we started cooking dinner regularly, which gave my husband and me better control over what we were eating. I also became much more conscious of taking my daily multivitamin.
Improved nutrition meant that I revved up my metabolism, made better choices because of accountability, lost weight (8 pounds in 3 weeks), and had more energy.
Conclusion: Better nutrition = less fatigue and better cognitive function.
Using the fitness tracker showed me how my personal choices were causing me to feel bad, when I honestly thought that it was entirely the MS that was making me feel too tired and depressed to do anything.
Once I was able to more clearly see my behavior patterns, I made changes that improved my life significantly, and my neurologist could help me see which symptoms we could actually blame on MS and improve with medication or physical therapy.
Better sleep + more movement + improved nutritional choices = less fatigue, improved cognitive function, improved moods, and a healthier weight.
If you have multiple sclerosis and are considering whether or not to pick up a fitness tracker, I wholeheartedly recommend it. It can help you make positive changes, if you’re willing to put in the effort.
Do you have a FitBit? Has it helped you to feel better?
You may also enjoy reading other articles by Rachael: 5 ways to make your home MS friendly, having the best sex possible with multiple sclerosis and cinnamon helps to suppress symptoms.