It’s more than 100 degrees outside, and even though extreme heat leaves Melissa May Yelvington limp, she walks through the gym door.
The 63-year-old has multiple sclerosis, a disease that attacks the nervous system, distorting and interrupting the impulses that travel from her brain to the rest of her body.
Eighteen months ago, Yelvington’s independence was diminishing; she couldn’t stand up or sit without assistance.
But today, she gingerly lowers herself to a chair at Creek’s Gym in Palm Desert. She shares a laugh with other clients of ACT for MS, a nonprofit organization that provides two personal training sessions a week to those with various degrees of disability from the disease.
Yelvington has come for the last year and a half.
“I can walk a little farther. I have more endurance,” the Palm Desert woman said. “I notice that when I do have relapses, I’m able to pull myself up better — to snap back.”
The ACT for MS program goes back seven years, according to gym owner Creek Williams. While most clients hope to lose weight and tone up just like anyone else, personal trainers tailor workouts with the goal of improving quality of life.
“Everybody’s different,” Williams, 70, said. “Some people just need to stand up. Some need to walk. Some need balance.”
Pat Harabedian of Cathedral City scoots her wheelchair over to a vibration therapy machine. She tucks the palms of her hands under her knees and lifts her legs up. Her feet squarely on a platform, the machine starts up and jiggles her legs furiously, causing her muscles to contract and relax.
Harabedian, 62, relies on her upper-body strength to transfer herself from the wheelchair to a sofa at home, but it’s still important for her to stretch her leg muscles and have them worked.
“It’s not the muscles that are bad,” she explains, “it’s just getting the impulses to tell your muscles to move. But if you don’t use your muscles, they’re going to atrophy. So we keep working on them a little bit.”
Like most clients at the gym, heat saps all energy from Harabedian. Most describe their limbs and bodies becoming “noodles” when their core temperature rises just a degree.
“My leg goes out,” Mariellen Boss, 59, said, demonstrating her walk with a wobbly left leg. “That’s my tell.”
She sports a navy blue vest in the gym. Ripping open a long strip of Velcro, she proudly shows off gel packs inside. They still are cold to the touch after her hour-long workout.
The ice vest has worked so well that the Cathedral City woman is running errands and dining out with it.
But the two workout sessions a week were what motivated her to make the investment. Besides dropping 12 pounds and two dress sizes, Boss doesn’t fatigue as easily in her work as a massage therapist.
“I just know I have to do this because if I don’t, it’s going to be worse, and I don’t want it to be worse,” she said. “I don’t want to walk around noodle-y. I want to be able to work. I want to be able to do things with my husband.”
Asked what she would tell people who don’t have MS and complain about working out in the heat, she smiled and said, “The more you do, the more you can do.”