SHAWNA NORTHOVER – Staying Motivated to Get the Most Out of Life

Photos by Loushannarose Photography

On the outside, Shawna Northover is an active, physically fit mom of two. But on the inside she struggles with a debilitating disease.

The 34-year-old had always tried to fit physical activity into her life, but four years ago, she knew something wasn’t right when she couldn’t run anymore. In and out of doctors’ offices and ERs, Shawna couldn’t get answers for the constant pain and numbness in her knees and hips.

Her symptoms grew worse as her fatigue became overwhelming and it got to the point where her doctors were suggesting she reach out to mental health because her symptoms weren’t a result of a physical ailment.

It wasn’t until March of 2018, after being hospitalized, that she learned she had MS.
“I had a lot of mixed emotions,” she explains. “On one hand I was thankful to finally have some answers.”

Most of Shawna’s lesions are on her spine, which is why it took so long to get a diagnosis, but now that she has one, she is more determined than ever to stay physically fit.

“I really started to take my health and fitness seriously after being diagnosed,” she explains. “Seeing how bad things can get was a real eye opener.”

So every day, she tries to get herself moving in some way, whether it’s strength training with weights, cardio, or stretching.

Shawna says her number one motivator for staying fit and active is her children.

“I want to be at my best for them and myself for many years
to come.”

Like everyone, there are days that she finds it difficult to get started, days she wishes she could just stay in bed, but knowing that has a much harsher reality for her than most is also a strong motivator.

“When I don’t or can’t exercise or eat healthy, I feel it. I just feel awful. More often than not, when I’m having a bad day and my symptoms are acting up and all I want to do is sleep, if I just force myself to “press play” and get going for a walk, a run, a workout, whatever it is, I always end up better for it.”

It was a lot of trial and error at first for Shawna, learning what exercises she could do and which ones she couldn’t, what foods she could eat, and which would cause a flair up. But now through research and her own experience, she knows what works for her and what doesn’t, and keeping on a strict diet, minimizing sugars and gluten, while making sure to get some sort of physical activity in each day, has helped her leaps and bounds.

In fact, she notes that at her most recent MS appointment at the Dalhousie MS Research Unit, Shawna’s neurologist encouraged her to keep doing what she is doing.

“He thinks my diet and exercise is doing wonders for me, along with my long-term therapy medication. He said there are many studies showing that diet and exercise are similar in effectiveness to early injectable medications used to treat MS years ago. So with my exercise and treatment plan, it’s like having a double dose of medication.”

Shawna never thought she would run again, now two years later, she’s running and walking 10 kilometres a day and exercising more than the average person.

What’s most important is finding your “why”. The motivation, the reason you keep showing up for yourself each and every day through physical activity and healthy eating. It doesn’t have to start by throwing everything out the window. Small, incremental changes are what can help get you on the right track to eating healthier and exercising.

“Don’t get me wrong, there are days where I have a difficult time doing simple tasks, like opening a pop bottle, that should and used to come so easily. I get frustrated, but I remind myself how thankful I am that I can still do what I can. It also helps to have an amazing support system like I have with my family and friends. They’re always there for me and so understanding. I couldn’t do it without all of them.”
As much as Shawna’s family is her motivator, she too motivates them in ways she never knew.

“It’s motivation for the family to witness such a persistent determination to overcome obstacles in order to achieve her wellness goals,” explains Ryan Northover, Shawna’s husband. “The visible commitment required to keep moving forward is a great example for the kids, one that highlights the importance of never giving up when life gets in the way. The whole family is very proud of her!”

And her motivation doesn’t stop there. Shawna’s children continue to be inspired by her daily as well.

“It makes me happy (to see mom exercising and being healthy),” noted her youngest Benjamin. While her oldest Ethan chimed in, “I’m very proud of her and her dedication. It shows how strong she is.”

Knowing that she is motivating her family and friends in this way is a blessing for Shawna and it helps her to continue on her path.

But Shawna cautions, not everyone is the same and not all MS patients, or anyone for that matter, have the same symptoms and abilities, so it is important to find what works for you.

Andrea Munroe, Physiotherapist at the Nova Scotia Rehabilitation and Arthritis Centre says, “Exercise is great for almost anything. It’s important to get an assessment and a program geared toward what works well for you. The best options would include a global program with strength training, flexibility, and balance work. But fatigue is always generally an issue with MS patients, so getting the opinion of a professional is always best before beginning any new programs.”

Shawna adds, “I will do as much as I can for as long as I can, and though it’s not easy, I am just so incredibly thankful I can still do what I can. I highly believe a healthy diet and exercise is critical. Do as much as you can, when you can and don’t beat yourself up when you can’t. A positive attitude goes a long way when to comes to your mental health.”

Shawna is a beacon of inspiration, not only for MS patients, but anyone who is trying to stay motivated to live an active, healthy life.