Health and Wellness: Affordable and Fun Things to Do

By Shelley Peterman Schwarz

Health and Wellness Photo

I live in Madison, Wisconsin, which is often referred to as one of the best places in the country to live, find a job, or raise a family. I know it’s true because I’ve lived here for 40 years. I also know that it is easy for me to become a “homebody” and miss a lot of what my hometown has to offer, especially since I have been living with MS for many years. Sometimes it’s just easier to stay home where I can control my surroundings. I have all my creature comforts, things are where I need them, and generally, there are no surprises. And, during this tough economy, I have another excuse for staying home – saving money.

But who wants to stay in the house all summer, or for that matter, any time? When the weather does permit, I really do try and get out, at least for an hour or two. It’s good for my mental health and it’s especially fun to take advantage of the free and inexpensive activities that surround Madison and the small towns close by. Your community probably offers the same type of activities – concerts in the park, county fairs, farm tours, school and community recreational programs, fishing for people with special needs, water-skiing shows, free boat rides, semi-professional ballgames, and more.

Lots of times I find out “what’s happening” from my friends and neighbors who are out and about more than I am. Public libraries and the Bookmobile are also a great source of information because they have bulletin boards where local groups and organizations are also able to post community gatherings and public meetings, as well as activities and programs.

When looking for things to do, I contact my Chamber of Commerce for a calendar of events or to obtain a copy of community magazines to learn about additional free and low-cost activities. Daily newspapers and free publications available at grocery and drug stores often contain ads and announcements for garage sales, flea markets, arts and crafts fairs, garden club plant sales, farmer’s markets, and book fairs.

Another idea is to stop by a local hotel to collect brochures and free magazines advertising sights of interest. Often these publications have reduced entrance-fee coupons inside.

When looking for other ways to locate outdoor activities, the internet can provide you with quick information. You can search for local activities, specific attractions, parks, botanical gardens, zoos, even shopping centers to find out about special events they may be hosting.

Attending community festivals, taking part in a historic walking tour, hiking a trail with a guide, or visiting a wildlife preserve are ways to enjoy family time when the weather permits. Before you go however, be sure to check on accessibility. Ask about the availability of handicapped parking, where to find the accessible restrooms, the location of rest areas, and the type and condition of a walking path. These details are especially important for people with mobility limitations or for those using manual wheelchairs.

Sometimes the weather or other factor prevents you from taking part in outdoor activities, so here are a few ideas for “getting out” while staying in:

Attend an inexpensive or free class at stores like Whole Foods, Williams-Sonoma, and Sur La Table. Sometimes restaurants, gourmet food stores, and hospital/clinic wellness centers also offer classes for “cooking light” or the “how to’s” of ethnic cuisine.

Take a class based on a special interest – scrapbooking, knitting, or sewing. Learn a craft; start a hobby; or master some computer software. Make an appointment or just drop in to a specialty store to ask for instruction or to work on a project. Sales people are glad to help you with your project when time permits.

Take a guided tour inside a historical building. To go at you own pace, rent the headphones that narrate the presentation.

Attend a travelogue, a poetry reading, or a guest-author event at a bookstore.

Every year, I learn about new opportunities that make it possible for me to enjoy our wonderful country even more. Here are some of my favorite free and low-cost ideas:

The Federal government offers an America the Beautiful – The National Parks and Federal Lands Pass which gives the bearer FREE entrance to all national parks, forests, historical places, and other federal lands and properties operated by the National Park Service, United States Department of Agriculture – Forest Service, Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Land Management, and Bureau of Reclamation. Normally an $80 annual fee, this pass is FREE for a lifetime for a person with a disability. To obtain a free pass, just visit any national park or federal land office and provide proof of disability (your disabled parking pass, your SSDI award letter, or letter from your doctor). The pass provides free entry to you and the occupants in your vehicle to federal lands, or at places such as the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial (“Gateway Arch”) in St. Louis. When visiting sights such as this memorial, where an individual entrance fee is normally charged, the pass allows the bearer and three adult companions to be admitted at no charge (children 16 and under are free). It may also entitle the holder to 50-percent off other fees (such as those for camping, docking, parking, tours, etc.). Senior citizens, who are age 62 and older but are without a disability, may obtain the same lifetime pass for $10.

Some states, including Florida and Texas, offer discounted entrance or user fees to seniors and/or people with disabilities. Qualifications (age, in-state/out-of-state, etc.) vary, so ask about discounts for people with disabilities (and senior citizens) when you enter.

In Wisconsin, many of the state parks have fully accessible cabins complete with accessible picnic tables and grills that give people, even with severe disabilities, the opportunity to enjoy camping. Paradise Springs, located in the Kettle Moraine State Forest has trails and fishing areas designed for people with mobility issues. Whitefish Dunes State Park in Door County has an accessible beach and beach wheelchairs that allow persons with disabilities to enjoy the water. And Devil’s Lake State Park near Baraboo rents an accessible kayak.

More and more communities are making outdoor activities accessible. There are accessible trails and fishing piers in many county and local parks. To find out what is available in your area, contact your city, county, and state parks and recreation departments.

People who enjoy outdoor adventure may look for a local Wilderness Inquiry program. Wilderness Inquiry’s mission is to make adventure travel accessible to everyone, regardless of your age, background, or ability. They conduct community events where people of all abilities can learn about water safety and try canoeing, kayaking, or paddling one of their Voyageur canoes. (Voyageur canoes are specially crafted for comfort and ease of use.) In my area they have partnered with a local water sports shop to provide an accessible “Paddle Fest” and brought their Voyageur canoes to events from Milwaukee’s waterfront to our great state parks. Wilderness Inquiry adventures, scheduled for all areas of the country and the world, include hiking, canoeing, rafting, rock climbing, horseback riding, and more. Experienced with people of all abilities, they will customize your trip with your specific needs in mind. Visit to learn more.

Staying Safe and Cool While You Are Out

When it is summertime and you live with MS, the sun, heat, and humidity can wilt you like overcooked spaghetti, even when you’re hydrated. But with the proper planning, you can enjoy a day at the beach, take in an art fair, or try camping or paddling.

Start with a good sunscreen, applied liberally one-half hour before you go out and every two hours throughout the day. Make sure that you use enough – a two-ounce shot glass worth for the average adult – and that the sunscreen is new. If not purchased this season, it may not give you adequate protection.

Invest in a good, comfortable hat and shirt with SPF protection of at least 30. Visit for a full array of clothing, swimwear, and sunglasses for men, women, and children.

Stay cool with bandanas, with water-absorbing beads or gel inside. Get them wet, tie them around your forehead, neck, or wrists, and you will feel cooler instantly. Bring twice as many as you would wear, so you always have a cool replacement available. You might find battery-operated personal fans to be helpful. Some can be worn around your neck or clipped to a hat brim. Misters are another good option. These continuously spray a very fine mist of water.

For serious cooling power, there are also cooling hats, vests, and other apparel available. MSAA offers a Cooling Equipment Distribution Program that provides cooling apparel to individuals who qualify. For more information, visit or call MSAA’s Helpline at (800) 532-7667.

Last but not least, staying hydrated is very important when in a hot environment. Drinking an adequate amount of water is helpful, and crushed ice or “slushy-type” drinks may help you to feel cooler. Avoid drinks with alcohol, caffeine, or too much sugar, as they can reduce or in some cases eliminate the hydrating effect of the liquid you consume.

Staying Connected Without Leaving the House

When the temperatures are hovering near 90 degrees (or higher) and the humidity is palpable, getting out is just not practical. The same is true when ice and snow or other weather factors interfere with one’s mobility. At those times it is important to stay connected by reaching out to others. Here are a few of my favorite ways to enjoy friends, family, and the whole world, when I’m forced to stay at home.

Use computer software like Skype to bring not only their voice but live video of your loved ones into your home, no matter where they are in the world. This service is free to download. If you want video capability, you and the person you call will need inexpensive cameras if your computers don’t have them. For more information, please visit

The internet is a great way to connect socially. For instance, you can reach out to friends via email. MSAA offers a Networking Program which connects individuals with MS through email, as well as care partners who want to share email with other care partners. For more information, please visit MSAA’s website at Professionally monitored chat rooms and blogs are another good option.

For real-life socializing, you can invite friends over for a pot luck, to watch a ballgame or movie (delivered to you by Netflix or the library), play cards or board games, work on a puzzle (such as a jigsaw, crossword, or Sudoku), or share hobbies. You might even start a book club.

Whatever you choose to do, make it easy; let others come to you and share in bringing the food and other refreshments. Don’t feel you need to do everything; friends are happy to help with even set up and clean up. The idea is to stay connected and have fun, in whatever way is energizing and doable for you.

I hope you’ll join me in staying active and getting out as much as possible to see new things and participate in fun and affordable activities. When going out just isn’t possible, I encourage you to invite people in. “Building community” means enjoying the people, places, and things that are around us. And by staying active and doing the things you enjoy, you are making an important contribution to your own physical health and emotional wellbeing.