Exercise Really Is Medicine

exercise is medicine

It was a little over a month ago that I lay on my weight bench in the garage with tears of frustration streaming down my face.  I had just completed a 15 minute “workout” consisting of a few unweighted lunges, some hip bridges, and 3 sets of 5 reverse abdominal curls.  This was all I could do, since I still had a PICC line in my arm and couldn’t chance any upper body work (I’ve learned that important life lesson).  As it turned out, the 3 exercises I chose were clearly enough, as my heart rate after the last rep was about 300 bpm and I felt like if I rolled off the bench right then, I might have to call my son in to help me up.

I was a mess.

I suppose I had a good reason for the tears.  This was the third bout of pneumonia in just four months, and I was sick and tired of being sick and tired. It was also my first attempt at any form of exercise other than easy walking in well over a month, and my physical fragility was frightening. Normally when I exercise, I am a bit of a taskmaster.  I push myself pretty hard and usually do more than I set out to do.  But today was different.  I was a complete wimp.

I was nearly at the end of my course of antibiotics and the PICC was coming out in two days.  This meant that I had been receiving medications to eradicate lung infections for four of the the last five weeks.  That is a lot of antibiotics.  There was likely not a viable bacterium to be found in my body. Indeed, my cough was gone, the pain of pleural inflammation was gone, and I could actually eat again. But, where was my mojo? I still felt like crap, and this was the kicker.  Normally, at the end of a course of IV’s, I am raring to go, having planned my fitness regimen for the next three months.  This time was different, and I was worried.

Of course, my partner reminded me that I would get better…that I always did…and that I needed to be patient. My rational mind knew this, but my emotional self kept whispering, “What if this is it? The beginning of the end?  Your 53 year good luck streak has to end sometime…”.  I hate that voice.

So, ten pounds of muscle mass down (which was obvious as I watched my legs trembling as I got up from the bench), I vowed to give my secret weapon the old college try and to stop listening to emotional self until the end of the trial.  Antibiotics are needed, as are pulmonary clearance and airway treatments.  Sleep is king, and hydration and good caloric intake does wonders.  But, the best medicine of all, at least in my experience, is daily exercise.  It makes me breathe deeper.  It gets me outside.  It makes me cough up junk.  It builds an appetite.  It makes me, ahem….regular.  But most of all, it feeds my soul.

So, tears now dried, I developed my plan.  It was a modified version of my plans of the past…much easier…much slower progressing.

Walking is always the foundation of my recovery, and will be until the day I can’t walk anymore.  But walking further than I should due to training for a half-marathon when sick was what landed me in the hospital with pneumonia number two, so I had to be cautious.  I decided to cut in half the time I thought I should be able to walk, and add just a few weight training exercises only three days/week.  These were front squats, kettlebell swings (only 10 at a time), and Turkish get-ups with a very light kettlebell.  That’s it.  I wanted to do more, but my shoulder was messed up (thanks to levoquin), and I had to be careful not to rupture a tendon.

So that’s what I did.  Over time, my walks became walk/jogs, and my two kettlebell exercises proved to work magic, as I knew they would.   Today, I’m doing swing intervals as easily as I was before the s&#t hit the fan back in January.  My shoulder is getting stronger and I’m able to press again. I can breathe. I’m not coughing. I’ve gained back 6 pounds.

Yes, the antibiotics did wonders. Thank God (and Barb) I have insurance and great medical care!  But there is no doubt in my mind that what converted me from that trembling, weak mess lying on my bench last month to today, looking forward to my get-ups and KB presses, is exercise.  Exercise is medicine.  Very slowly but surely, it works to build up strength and endurance, to improve appetite and thus enable weight gain, and to bring me out of the doldrums to enjoying my fantastically fortunate life.

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Out Swinging CF

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My Weekend at the RKC

weekend constant companions

Today is a new day, and instead of focusing on what isn’t working (most of me), I am going to write about my experience at the RKC in Minnesota just two weeks ago (it seems like two years ago at this point).

For those who don’t know, RKC stands for Russian Kettlebell Challenge, and the weekend certification is an intense three day immersion into technique and proving that one is “worthy” of the title “RKC Instructor.”  It is not for wimps.

Kettlebells have been around for hundreds of years in Russia, but are relatively new to the scene here in the US. They were brought here by the Evil Russian, Pavel Tsatsouline, a former Soviet Special Forces physical training instructor.  He is known now as the modern King of Kettlebells, and it is his methodology that is taught by “official RKC’s.”  Since bringing the kettlebell to this country, Pavel’s proteges are found on the Secret Service, Counter Assault Team, among US Navy SEALS and Force Recon Marines.  And then, there’s Julie.

Now you may wonder, why would a 50-year-old woman with cystic fibrosis want to be in the company of men and women who are either hard core trainers or athletes or counter-terrorism experts?  Kidding on that last one…

Yeah…I wondered that, too.  Especially at the meet and greet that happened the night before it all began.  I was there by myself, of course (who would accompany me to this?).  I stood in the room looking around at the healthy, muscular men, all many many years younger than I, and the equally healthy and fit, excited young women…I was looking for some older faces.  Please God, don’t let me be the only old person AND the only half-assed lung person.

Don’t get me wrong.  People were friendly.  Everyone was incredibly friendly to me.  Not just friendly, but reassuring me that I wasn’t crazy to be there (oh, what they didn’t know).  Many, many older people come to these certifications, they assured me, and some even came just to meet a personal goal, like me, rather than to be over-prepared for their upcoming SEAL training.

Needless to say, I went to bed with just a mild bit of trepidation.  Would I pass?  Pass…hell, would I live through this?

When I say, “pass,” what I mean is to meet all of the requirements of the weekend.  This is not just to pass the dreaded “snatch test,” (A snatch is a move where the bell is brought -with one hand-from between the legs to over the head with a strait arm in one fluid motion. My challenge was to snatch a 12 kg kettlebell 100 times in 5 minutes, switching arms as needed.  BTW–12 Kg = 26 lbs).  Just FYI, if I were to go to the garage right now and try to snatch my 12 kg bell for reps, I might get in 3 or 4 before I had to stop and gasp for air).  The snatch test is what everyone fears.  It sucks.  Seriously…even for healthy people.  It is a test of muscular endurance and aerobic capacity for which one must train for months in advance.  It’s also a test of sheer will, and the ability to endure pain.

But wait, that’s not all.  In addition to the snatch test, women must do the arm hang for 15 seconds (cake), and a woman of my size has to show perfect technique in the double kettlebell  (52 lbs) swing, double clean, double squat, double press, and the  single snatch…all for five consecutive reps. In addition, one must show perfect technique on an unusual exercise with an equally unusual name, the Turkish Get-Up.  None of these were cake.  Instructors were very picky about perfect form…for good reason–if they were to send people out to teach with sloppy form, the whole RKC brand would be harmed.  Form is everything…it prevents injury and promotes safety.  Nobody passes without perfect form.

But even that is not all that is necessary to pass.  The hardest thing required is that you actually have to get through each day of grueling practice, random “punishments” for the whole group if someone messes up by wearing the wrong shoes or sitting with a flexed spine.  I’m serious…they are very serious.  The first of such punishments come early on Day One, when we had to walk around the block carrying our snatch test bell.  This is way harder than it looks. Here we go, with yours truly leading the pack:

yep, that's me in front

And finally, there were “workouts” scattered throughout each day.  Each were short, only 10 to 20 minutes, but can you spell i-n-t-e-n-s-e?  I’m  blanking on most of them…I’m sure my brain is trying to spare me the memories.

Another requirement for passage was to demonstrate on the last day that we were capable of teaching what we had learned to bussed in “victims.”  These were volunteers from the community who “wanted” (read: they were bribed by great discount prices on Dragon Door products) to learn from newbie instructors about the latest greatest exercise craze.  We each got a victim to teach for 45 minutes, and then to workout for 10 minutes.  I had a great guy who already knew a fair amount.  I got lucky.

Finally…the last requirement…the “graduate workout.”  If you don’t complete it, you don’t pass.  It can take you all day if you need it, but you and your kettlebell (now your best friend) make your way up and back a huge field, stopping to swing and snatch away.  It took 40 minutes.  It was cold…I swear I saw snow (May 1, in St. Paul, MN).  I couldn’t feel my feet.  But when I completed that last swing, I was the happiest girl in Minnesota.  Heck, I wasn’t even the last one to finish!

Following the Grad Workout, we all waited with baited breath for our one-on-one meeting with our team instructors, for overall evaluation and the final decision…pass or “you’re fired!” (not really, if you don’t pass, you get a chance to work on your flaws and send in a video of you correctly performing the required exercise).  About 30% don’t pass.  These are athletes!  Seriously.

So, long story short:  Here is the evidence that I gave it my all:


This is after Day One.  I read somewhere that we did about a thousand swings on Friday.  I didn’t count, but I would believe it.  After I took this picture, I ordered room service because I literally could not move from the chair.  The bummer was that I could not sleep, 1) because I was on California time, and 2) I went into the weekend thinking the snatch test was on Day One.  Turns out they moved it to Day Three…so I was still nervous about whether I could do it…even more so actually, because I knew that by Sunday I might not be standing.

The morning of Day Two, I got out of bed with nary a single silent muscle fiber.  They were all screaming at me.  It reminded me of the day after the first day of basketball practice when I was in high school…only worse because I don’t believe I was fifty years old back then.  It didn’t help that I had to get up an hour early to do my treatment.  Yes…I did them all … except one.

Day Two went from 8 am to 7:30 pm.  Yes it did.  There was a 45 minute break for lunch and scattered water breaks through the day.  Also scattered through the day were more workouts, and more punishments.  Is this what military boot camp feels like? Learn and practice, all day, the clean, the press, the front squat, the snatch.  A favorite workout of mine this day (not) was called the “breathing ladder.”  Basically, it consisted of swinging the kettlebell for a given number of reps and then only resting for as long as it took to take a given number of breaths.  The reps increased, as did the number of breaths allowed, until we were all dying (not really). The purpose was to teach you how to slow down your breathing when stressed and breathe from the diaphragm.  A laudable goal, yet I don’t recommend this for anyone with a lung disease.  I did it, but the whole time I was wondering if I was about to desaturate right there on the floor.  I collapsed in the bathtub that night, wondering why the Holiday Inn bathrooms didn’t have those little strings you could pull for help, like they have in hospitals and assisted living centers.  I had only myself to blame.  No sleep again, but this time it was due to Prom night, and the collection of very drunk women who wanted to party in my hallway at 3am.  They were actually yelling.  I hope I never acted like that.

Day Three was there before I knew it.  I woke up determined to tape my hands in a way that would protect them from inevitable tearing during the snatch test.  I had read about this technique, and had brought with me all the requisite medical equipment.  I was a doctor, dammit.  I could help myself out a little.  Here is my beautiful tape job, done while inhaling salt (this is tricky, if you think about the number of hands required to 1) get taped, 2) do the taping, and 3) hold a nebulizer).

Do you realize how long this took?

So when the day starts, we all gather in our teams, and our Team Leader, Andrea Chang, says, “I need to see all hands.”  I hold mine up, proudly.  She looks at me and says, “Take it off, I have to see the skin.”  What?  I was chagrined. My masterpiece…in the garbage.  Apparently, they needed to see intact skin before the testing was to commence.  If anyone had an open wound, they had to be taped.  This is where you might say…but you were taped, Julie.  Yes…  It didn’t help that when she looked at my hands, she said, “You don’t need tape…you’re good.”  Ha!  Good… At this point of the weekend, I was not good.  My lungs were GREAT, but everything else hurt like hell.

Go lungs.  And they did.  The tests came, and went.  Technique tests were a bit nerve-wracking, because you know they are watching every single hair on your head, every angle, every point of contact with the ground, every joint position.  It was more of a mental test than physical.  But, then came the moment of truth.  I run outside to do the snatch test…remember, 100 in 5 minutes.  I had done this once before, so I had a modicum of confidence.  Yet, this had been before my most recent bout of pneumonia, so it was a very tiny modicum.  I really didn’t know if I could.  I remember thinking as I bent down to get set up to start, (and I know this sounds corny, but it’s true), Kathy…Tom…I’m doing this for you guys, too.  And I started.  I don’t remember it really.  What I remember is that with 10 seconds left, I had to go ALL OUT to get the 100th done.  But, I did…there was no way I was going to end up with 97, or 98, or,God forbid, 99. And then I seriously sucked air for many, many minutes.

When the Graduate Workout time came later that day, I knew I could do it.  If I could pass the snatch test, I could do anything.  I had a lot of folks cheering me on, by this point.  It felt unbelievable.  I was strong. I was woman.  Did you hear me roar?

The whole thing was surreal.  The feeling of pride that came over me after the last swing was more immense than when I graduated from medical school.  It was the hardest thing I have ever asked my body, and my will, to do.  And I did it as a 50-yr-birthday present to myself.  When times get tough, as they kind of are now, even reading what I have written cheers me up.  I am tough.  I am a fighter.  CF will never win.  I will decide when to go back to my corner.


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