In April 2006, at the age of 47, David Lyons was working out at the gym when he felt pain and numbness down his left arm. He ignored it, figuring he had pinched a nerve in his neck. He also ignored the pain, numbness, and tingling that migrated throughout his entire body, figuring he just had an issue with his sciatic nerve.
Within a month, Lyons couldn’t coordinate or feel his legs. By the following month, he was essentially paralyzed from the chest down. After five days of testing, including everything from MRIs to a spinal tap, Lyons received a diagnosis: multiple sclerosis (MS).
“I met the diagnosis with denial because I was a healthy athlete,” says Lyons, who had been a bodybuilder and health club owner. “Even the neurologist who diagnosed me said if it wasn’t for the amount of spinal lesions I had, he would have thought I had a nerve virus that would eventually go away. I was in such good shape, with no acknowledged prior symptoms, that it was hard for any of us to believe the prognosis.”
Lyons, a Christian who was raised Jewish, immediately turned to his faith. “I do not believe that a man or a building makes you a believer or spiritual. It is what is in my heart that defines my spirituality. My spirituality is a personal experience I encounter every day of my life.”
Doctors told him he would end up in a wheelchair, but Lyons refused to listen. “I fought them on being wheeled out of the hospital, but they would not release me until I did,” he recalls. “At the front door I pushed myself out of the chair and stumbled out of the hospital. I was not going to give in to this disease.”
Until his diagnosis, Lyons knew nothing about the disease. After returning home from the hospital, Lyons began researching MS and the people who suffer from it. What he learned sent him reeling.
“I started to question why I had MS and felt my life was over,” he recalls. “It took me more than a year to get out of that funk through prayer and working on my mindset.”
One day, Lyons says he looked in the mirror and told himself it was time to “stop the pity party and do something.”
Lyons refused to be labeled with a prognosis. “I knew God had a plan,” he says. “I had no idea what it was, but I knew it was going to be in the gym.”
In December 2007, he started working out again with two friends. Lyons was small and weak after not training for several months, but he was determined.
“Within a few reps and sets, I felt I was home,” he says. Lyons continued to train with his friends six days a week. After about a month, despite having MS, he decided to train for the 2009 Florida State Bodybuilding Championship. Lyons competed and won the Most Inspirational award—to a standing ovation.
God’s plan, he says, was set in motion.
In 2013, Lyons and his wife Kendra founded the MS Fitness Challenge (MSFC), a nonprofit organization that helps educate and train people with MS about health and fitness.
That same year, Lyons received the Health Advocate of the Year Award. Two years later, Arnold Schwarzenegger presented him with the Health Advocate Lifetime Achievement Award for his MS-related accomplishments in fitness.
Lyons writes a column, “MS Fitness Challenge,” for online health magazines, such as everydayhealth.com. He is working with the American Fitness Professionals and Associates (AFPA) and created an MS personal trainer’s certification called MS Fitness and Wellness Specialist.
“I started all of this to help myself deal with this disease and to have a purpose in battling it through bodybuilding,” he says. “Every day is another opportunity to work with and help those with MS to conquer this disease through fitness and nutrition.”
While he and his wife have dedicated their lives to making a difference for people who have MS, they also want to encourage everyone who is dealing with challenges in their lives. They are opening a new gym, OptimalBody Personal Fitness, in their hometown of Murrieta, California. The gym accommodates and welcomes people in wheelchairs or who are dealing with other physical challenges.
“I have always been a self-motivated person with a drive to succeed, but I was focused mainly on myself,” Lyons says. “I now wake up each day with the same commitment, but now it’s to help others as I help myself. My faith was unwavering from the MS diagnosis and it is unwavering to this day. That will not change. Now I feel I have a true purpose.”
David Lyons is the president and executive producer of Bishop-Lyons Entertainment; owner of the OptimalBody fitness brand; founder of the MS Bodybuilding Challenge, and cofounder with his wife Kendra of MS Fitness Challenge. The author of David’s Goliath, he lives with his family in Murrieta, California.