I Got a FitBit to Get a Bit Fit

By: Jeri Burtchell

Like that commercial for cassette tapes from the 70s wondered, “is it live or is it Memorex?” I’m becoming unsure of what symptoms are due to my MS, and which ones I would have had anyhow. Now that I’m a quinquagenarian (who knew people in their fifties had a name?), I’m realizing not everything can be blamed on MS.

There’s new research that shows exercise can help MS fatigue which to me seems counter-intuitive. If I can’t even stay awake in the afternoon, how am I expected to exercise?

Inspired by friends who are losing weight and exercising, I have decided to become more fit. My goal was simple: I just want to get up in the morning and not hobble about like a wooden marionette. Maybe stretching and walking would be good for me.

It turns out that I’m one of those people who needs to measure progress and see rewards. I needed a tracker. While researching the various gadgets I happened on FitBit and I fell in love with the Flex. It’s a wristband that tracks steps, miles, calories burned, and even tracks your sleep. It seemed like the perfect solution.

If you are in your fifties and have MS and decide to buy one of these, do NOT leave the default settings in place. The daily step count goal is 10,000 steps. If you’ve never paid attention to how many steps you take in an average day, you’d be surprised, but you might also already know that 10K steps is pushing it for a 50something, otherwise inert person.

The package came on a Saturday so I gathered the kids and we headed off to nearby Ravine Gardens State Park where the azaleas were in full bloom. Criss-crossed with trails for the physically fit, the park is circled by a paved road so you can also enjoy it from the comfort of your Honda. In retrospect, that’s probably where I should have been.

The energy and excitement the kids were feeling was contagious. I was excited to start getting fit by becoming more active and I planned to do it by walking. I knew I couldn’t keep up with their pace however, so I let the kids go on ahead planning to meet back in the parking lot.

This ravine was not new to me. Thirty years earlier I had walked it often when my oldest son was small. I remember pushing a stroller and casually communing with nature. So the sign at the park entrance that clearly stated the drive measured 1.8 miles had to be wrong… or maybe 1.8 miles was nothing, since my FitBit also said I should be able to walk 5 miles in a day.

I started out strong, pacing myself and walking confidently, breathing in the fresh air and appreciating the sun-dappled flowers.

But before long I found myself wilting, and searching out the nearest bench to rest on. That’s okay, I thought to myself, there’s no hurry. I can rest as often as I like.

Soon, however, I was about halfway around the circumference of the park when panic set in. I really didn’t think I could make it out of the park. I dialed my son’s cell phone to let him know maybe he should send one of the many park employees for me, riding one of those golf carts.

His number went straight to voicemail and my texts went unanswered. As usual, he’d forgotten to charge it.

Sitting on a bench I weighed my options. Walk until I fell on my face, stay on the bench until someone came looking for me, or take my time and make slow progress, sitting often on benches along the way.

I opted for the latter. My fun excursion into the world of the fit became a fight to make it to the next bench where I could collapse and wait until my poor legs felt they could try again.

A good two hours after our trip to the park began I finally straggled into the parking lot where both kids ran up to see if I was okay.

That was four weeks ago and since then I have learned a lot. I have learned that while I’m not a teenager any more, I can walk a mile working out to exercise videos. That way, if I get exhausted I’m already home. I’ve also learned I need to listen to my MS.

I may have overdone it that first day in the park, but I haven’t given up. In the month since I started, I have lost almost five pounds, I no longer need to nap, and I have more strength. There’s no denying that my FitBit is helping me to get fit — one little bit at a time.


*Jeri Burtchell was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1999. She has spoken from a patient perspective at conferences around the country, addressing social media and the role it plays in designing clinical trials. Jeri is a MS blogger, patient activist, and freelance writer for the MS News Beat of Healthline.com. She lives in northeast Florida with her youngest son and elderly mother. When not writing or speaking, she enjoys crafting and photography.

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The Multiple Sclerosis Association of America (MSAA) is a national nonprofit organization and leading resource for the entire MS community, improving lives today through vital services and support. MSAA provides free programs and services, such as: a Helpline with trained specialists; award-winning publications, including, The Motivator; MSAA’s nationally recognized website, featuring educational videos, webinars, and research updates; a mobile phone app, My MS Manager™; safety and mobility equipment products; cooling accessories for heat-sensitive individuals; MRI funding; My MSAA Community, a peer-to-peer online support forum; MS Conversations blog; a clinical trial search tool; podcasts; and more. For additional information, please visit www.mymsaa.org or call (800) 532-7667.


  • Wendy Henderson says:

    You should exercise in the morning…when we have more energy. I count my steps, as I walk…keeps me focused on those feet & I think, keeps me from tripping. For me, I walk ‘best’ when I’m doing strides. I can’t run and I have a problem standing still for too long. Oh yeah, and I give thanks every day- that I’m still able to walk!

  • Jonny Kandell says:

    I really thought this story was extremly inspirational! Thanm you for sharing it! I always wanted a fitbit but my family cannot even afford it due to much debt… Do you think i can have a fitbit? It would help improve my mood and strength and make me a better person. Get back to mee soon, thanks!

    • Samantha Schech says:

      Hi Jonny,
      Thank you for your comment, I am glad that you found the story inspirational. Unfortunately, the MSAA does not have direct financial assistance at this time that would be able to purchase a Fitbit for you, however, there may be other ways for you to monitor your physical activity. Although the Fitbit worked well for Jeri, keeping an activity journal or log may be helpful for you. You can track each day the activities you complete, whether it’s walking around the block, or doing some stretches at home. Overtime, once your journal begins to fill up, you will visually be able to see all that you have accomplished. For some, this can be very motivating.

      I am sorry that we aren’t able to assist financially at this time, but do wish you the best of luck with finding a routine that will work for you. Please feel free to reach out to us at MSquestions@mymsaa.org or 1-800-532-7667 ext. 154 in the future as needed. Take care.

  • Jeri Burtchell says:

    Thanks for the comments and I’m really glad I could inspire you. I agree with Wendy that I walk best in the mornings. By evening I sometimes develop quite a pronounced limp.

    There are other fitness trackers on the market that are less expensive than the FitBit Flex (the one I use). In fact, a friend of mine just told me today that she got the FitBit Zip for under $50. It also syncs with a smartphone and PC to integrate across all your devices.

    You might try on Craigslist or Freecycle in your area to see if you can find a second hand tracker for a more affordable price. Also, there are pedometers you can get for under $20 that work just fine. If you are trying to lose weight, MyFitnessPal.com is a free site to track your calories and your fitness. It seems to be helping me.

    I still have days (like today) where I didn’t get my video exercise routine in, but I reached my step goal and I’m not going to push too hard on days when I don’t feel up to it.

    I wish you the best and hope everyone finds a way to stay active and challenge themselves. It certainly has helped me this past month. Take Care!

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