Physicians and researchers at OHSU have promoted the idea that aerobic exercise can help people affected by multiple sclerosis, a concept that’s supported by their recent research findings.
Chris Ramsey, 44, who is being treated for MS at OHSU, takes it to a whole other level.
Ramsey, a physical therapist who lives in Beaverton, Oregon, is currently training for the Race Across the West, a 930-mile bike race from southern California to Colorado that begins June 13. Notably, he is believed to be the first person with MS to attempt the race solo. Others have participated as members of relay teams, but Ramsey will be the first to take on the mountains of the coastal range and the Rockies as well as the Mojave Desert as a solo racer while living with MS.
“He’s a big supporter of the role that exercise plays,” said Dennis Bourdette, M.D., professor and chair of neurology in the OHSU School of Medicine. “Just because you have MS doesn’t mean you can’t live your dreams.”
Ramsey would certainly agree.
He first experienced symptoms of multiple sclerosis in 2008, when he began to feel weakness, numbness and fatigue. At that point, he had been competing in triathlons for 15 years, including 12 Ironman triathlons consisting of a 2.4-mile swim, 112 miles on a bike and a 26.2-mile run. Suddenly, a half-hour spent on an exercise bike exhausted him. He began daily injections to treat what would likely progress to MS that same year. By the time he was officially diagnosed with MS in 2011, he had already determined that he was going to use his athletic training as a cudgel against the disease.
“The diagnosis was actually a relief – I could put that one unknown to rest and move on,” Ramsey said. “I turned back to what I had always done: I just had to refocus and re-center, and get back to that next race.”
Multiple sclerosis is a chronic condition that affects the brain and spinal cord. It’s caused when the sheath covering nerve fibers in the brain and spinal cord becomes damaged, slowing or blocking electric signals from the brain reaching the eyes, muscles and other parts of the body. It is thought to affect more than 2.3 million people worldwide.
Bourdette began seeing Ramsey in the OHSU Multiple Sclerosis Center in 2012, after he was referred by his OHSU colleague, Kerry Kuehl, M.D., a health promotion and sports medicine physician who directs the OHSU Human Performance Laboratory. Kuehl calls Ramsey “one of my true hero patients,” someone who exemplifies the findings in his own research demonstrating that even a brief aerobic exercise program can help to create new brain cells in patients with relapsing recurring MS.
“People with MS should not get bummed out that they can’t complete a triathlon like Chris,” Kuehl said. “We see improvements in fitness, activities of daily living and improved cognition for people who did mild exercise.”
Ramsey acknowledges that he’s not the standard case – he’s an elite athlete who has competed in 18 ironman competitions across a 22-year career in triathlons, including qualifying for the Ironman World Championships nine times, three of which came after his diagnosis – but he is convinced that exercise can help anyone counteract some of the symptoms of MS.
“Every single person on the planet can raise the bar a little above where they’re at now,” he said. “Whether you’re a world-class athlete or a couch potato, the bar can be lifted. I hope what I’m doing inspires people to raise that exercise bar just a little bit. That would be success.”