As I get older, I find myself frequently wondering how it is that I continue to do so well with my original lungs? I’m 52, and my lung function has remained fairly stable for many, many years. I’m actually quite superstitious about this subject and am almost afraid to write about it, lest somehow this causes things to change drastically as soon as I hit “publish.” But the reason I’ve decided to discuss it is I happen to know that there is at least one factor that has greatly contributed to my health and has been totally under my control. I’m under no illusion that I am in absolute control of everything CF related…I know that my DNA must contain some serious modifier genes working for me, for instance. I also know that, unlike my older siblings who didn’t do as well with their CF, my parents had stopped smoking by the time I rolled around, and this most definitely helped my little lungs when I was a wee thing. These things are totally out of my control, and have certainly contributed to my run of good fortune. But there are also a few things that I think I can (and should) take credit for and I feel like I almost have a responsibility to share them so that others will benefit as well.
Nobody forced me to get strong. It was entirely my idea, and an odd one at the time. It didn’t just come to me through good genetics, either. It took consistent, patient, diligent hard work on my part. It was 1980, and the big craze was to do “cardio” to get fit. I drank the jogging Kool Aid and ran miles and miles to get my cardio in. I will admit that my motivation to jog had absolutely nothing to do with CF back then; it had everything to do with vanity. I wanted to be slim…if not downright skinny. I absolutely hated running. It was hard to breathe and I found nothing about it enjoyable except the feeling that I had when it was over for the day! That feeling kept me hooked, though, and I kept at it. Of course, this was an awesome way to treat my CF back then, and I’m sure it played a huge part my not requiring IV’s until my mid-30’s. I did nothing else in terms of respiratory care…it was before the days of the Vest or flutter. Pulmozyme wasn’t invented, and hypertonic saline was only discussed in chemistry classes. So, I jogged with the other lemmings, and cleared my lungs out this way.
But vanity (I must have had a lot of this) also led me to another form of exercise that was less popular, especially for 20-year-old women. I started lifting weights. And, I got strong…very strong. I first became hooked when I noticed after a few weeks of arm weights that my shirt sleeves were tighter. At first I thought the shirt had shrunk, but then my hand brushed against my upper arm and I noticed it was hard…as in muscular. Whoa, I thought, this stuff works! Then I started buying books about “women’s weight training.” I learned all the exercises and started doing them. Pretty soon, I was bench pressing my weight, and there would be times where I’d look around and realize that I was the strongest woman in the gym. Now, this was a pretty amazing concept to wrap my “I have CF and will never be an athlete” brain around. I still ran, because I started to realize it was good for more than just my pant size, but my fitness passion was all about weight training.
In my experience, there is nothing more empowering than realizing that I can do something physical as well as, or even better than, CFTR-able gym rats. Lifting weights and the resulting strength gains did this for me. The gym became my “CF can’t touch this” happy place. Mind you, I am not talking about the “cardio” area of the gym. CF most definitely ruled in that place. I’m talking about free weights, squat racks, and yes, even the dreaded barbell deadlift platform. Strutting around the gym doing my thing three or four days a week was and still is a very effective coping mechanism I’ve fine-tuned after thirty-plus years of lifting while living with a nasty disease.
But beyond the immense psychological benefits, the absolute strength derived from weightlifting has provided countless physical assists in dealing with CF. I think it was the legendary strength coach, Dan John, who developed the metaphor of absolute strength being like a glass (the drinking kind). The bigger the glass, the easier it will be to achieve your fitness goals, whatever they are. He likens absolute strength to a container which holds everything else fitness related (mobility, strength endurance, flexibility, etc). The bigger the container, the more of these other qualities fit. For example, if I can bench press 100 lbs, there is a very good chance that I can do many more push ups than someone who can only press 50 lbs. I also likely have better shoulder flexibility and mobility.
I like to expand on his metaphor here, and say that the strength container holds many CF care related items as well. If I have developed abs of steel by doing heavy front squats, I am willing to bet that my cough is stronger and I am able to clear more crap from my lungs than someone who has minimal abdominal strength. If I have increased my thoracic mobility by doing heavy Turkish get ups, or jerks, I know that my chest wall mechanics are optimized for full lung expansion. If I have built up some serious lean mass by lifting for hypertrophy, I know I have improved my glucose metabolism. See what I mean? Strength is a tremendous benefit, not just for your psyche, but also for your ninja CF fighting skills.
Do cardio, by all means. It shakes you up and makes you breathe faster and deeper. This is great for airway clearance. But do NOT neglect weight training and fail to take advantage of the amazing benefits of just being bad ass strong!