Milford fitness class leader deals with multiple sclerosis

MILFORD – To watch Kani Nicodemus lead an early morning indoor cycling class, you would think she is as healthy as any of the other spinning teachers at Hampshire Hills Sports & Fitness Club.

She calls out encouragement to the cyclers throughout the 50-minute class and never seems to get out of breath as she sprints and climbs hills.

But after class, you might notice she is careful walking down the stairs because her left leg gets fatigued during the intense workout.

That’s because Nicodemus has multiple sclerosis – a chronic, incurable disease of the central nervous system.

This month, she said she is spreading the word about the disease, which disrupts communication between the brain and the rest of the body and is believed to occur when the immune system attacks the insulation around nerve fibers.

The 48-year-old fitness teacher lives in Milford and works as a pension-plan communications analyst for Xerox Corp., but many know her from her early morning spinning classes.

March is MS Awareness Month, and Nicodemus said she wants everyone – especially fellow MS suffers – to know there are ways around the disease and that they can keep moving, keep trying to stay fit.

Nicodemus is vocal about MS in her classes, where she shares MS “fun facts,” such as the names of famous people who have or had the disease: Annette Funicello, Jack Osbourne and Teri Garr.

Nicodemus said she was diagnosed when she was 33 after suffering bad headaches. As it turned out, the headaches were not the result of MS, but the MRI showed lesions in her brain that led to the diagnosis, she said.

In the 1990s, the only option for MS patients was injectable drugs, and they weren’t an option for Nicodemus, who said she has a phobia about needles. So she used exercise and diet as part of an all-around healthy lifestyle to keep the symptoms under control.

But then the Food and Drug Administration began approving oral drugs, and two years ago, Nicodemus said she began taking a drug called Aubagio. The next year, she said her annual MRI showed no new brain lesions.

The trim, petite brunette has become something of a poster girl for MS. In February, the drug’s maker, Genzyme Corp., flew her to Arizona to make a video of her doing yoga.

When Hampshire Hills’ staff learn of members who have MS, they tell them about Nicodemus, who is glad to talk to them. She said one woman told her she thought the diagnosis meant she couldn’t exercise.

Spinning, yoga, Pilates, horseback riding, swimming and strength training are all good for MS patients, and all can be done at different fitness levels.

For Nicodemus, the MS meant she had to stop teaching other group classes, such as Body Pump and Body Combat, since she sometimes experiences “drop foot” when the muscles in her left foot disengage. But spinning is good because she can let the right foot take over the pedaling.

Two years ago, she went on a 25-mile Bike MS ride in Bar Harbor, Maine. It took her more than four hours and many rest breaks, but she did it.

“One thing I want everyone to know is that it’s not a death sentence,” Nicodemus said. It’s a question of “doing what you can and knowing your limits.”

Kathy Cleveland can be reached at 673-3100 or