Since becoming very strict about my exercise regime, which consists of at least an hour of hiking, yoga, or jogging everyday (plus biking and walking everywhere - I hardly ever use a car), my disease has been radically altered. Before I started this routine, I was physically weak and would huff and puff up a flight of stairs, get exhausted after a short walk, and was fatigued pretty much all the time. At the beginning of my new exercise routine, my FEV1 jumped almost 10% in a month! Now, even though my FEV1 has declined somewhat, I am stronger and more fit than I have been in years. I can do more rigorous physical activity for longer periods of time than I could when my FEV1 was higher. In this way, the numbers have little bearing on my quality of life. I wanted to make up t-shirts that say, "Screw the numbers, I feel great!". Truly, I care a hell of a lot less about my FEV1 than I do about how my lungs feel, how strong I am, and the quality of my emotional life. Of course, I am trying to increase my FEV1, and most likely it would have dropped a lot more in the last year and a half if I wasn't exercising so regularly. The stronger my muscles get, the more efficient they become at using energy and oxygen, so I can do more and go farther on less. I am tired much less often now, which also has a lot to do with the improvements in my diet that I've made.
I also feel that the muscles and tissue in my lungs themselves are healthier from so much stimulation and increased blood flow. Although my FEV1 has declined, my CT-scans show little change in my bronchiectasis, and even a slight decrease in the bronchiectasis in the upper lungs! I believe this has everything to do with how exercise helps me clear out the mucus, increase the blood flow to my lung tissue, and improve the elasticity of my airways through constant movement (remember, bronchiectasis is a loss of airway elasticity). My posture has also improved, and my chronic low back pain has pretty much disappeared (yoga is wonderful for this).
In addition, exercise improves insulin sensitivity. Physical exertion burns up the sugar stored in your cells to fuel your body. When that sugar is used up, the cells need to restore their supply, so they upregulate the number of insulin receptors on the cell membrane so that insulin can push more sugar from the blood into the cells, reducing our blood sugar. This is another reason why we need to exercise regularly - to maintain insulin sensitivity and to keep our blood sugar under control. So exercising when we're "sick" and plugged up with mucus is very important not only to move all that junk out through coughing, but also to increase our insulin sensitivity, which can decline when we are stressed or have an infection.
In Chinese medicine exercise is considered to facilitate proper digestion, as it balances the liver-gallbladder complex which also governs emotional health. Furthermore, with damp conditions involving a lot of mucus, exercise is considered critical to their treatment as it introduces "wind" into the body, drying up the dampness as a breeze dries a wet cloth that hangs out to dry. When I am feeling lethargic and tired, instead of napping which usually makes the situation worse, I go for a hike. Even something as simple as walking or hiking builds chi in the body, clearing away the chemicals and energetic stagnation that makes us feel tired. In Ayurveda, it is understood that our bodily energy comes from the prana, which mean "life force" and enters us through the breath. Without fail, I feel more energized and alert at the end of every hike, even if at the beginning I felt like I wanted to curl up in the ferns on the side of the trail and take a nap. Building chi through exercise is a very effective way for me to boost my energy and fight fatigue.
But the best part about exercising is the mental and physical satisfaction that I get from being outside in nature and doing something to nurture myself. I don't do exercise because my docs tell me to. I do it because I love it, and because it is helping me on my spiritual path. And I can clearly feel the results. For me, exercise is also a practice in cultivating greater awareness of my thoughts and emotions. Through movement, I become more human, more at one with the energies that I create and that surround and move through me.
And there are so many ways to exercise; so may activities to choose from! From walking to biking, horseback riding, dancing, rock climbing, running, snowboarding, sledding, yoga, working out, hiking, martial arts, gardening, swimming, ice skating... basically anything that moves your body! These things are also known as "fun", by the way. The human body was designed to exercise, either gently or rigorously, all day everyday. Even standing up or walking from one side of the room to the other is healthier than sitting at a desk for hours. This is true for humans in general, but especially for CFers who can't afford to let that mucus pool in the lungs for too long. As my friend Colin tells me, "Let's get the gravy out!".
Exercise was what started my journey towards full empowerment. Exercise allowed me to see the effects of taking full control of and responsibility for my life. I realized that healing is my responsibility. No one is going to do it for me. If I want healing, then I have to do it myself. Period. This realization gave me back such a sense of power, something I had lost after so many years of victimizing myself and being psychologically dependent on other people to "take care of me". It became clear that my life is what I make of it, and if I want to be happy and healthy, then all I have to do is make an effort to manifest it and believe that I am happy and healthy. Health can be defined in so may ways, but to me, it means living life fully and with great awareness of myself and how I move through the world. Can health really be defined by numbers? No, I don't think so. Health is a state of mind-body-spiritual balance. Can we be healthy even when our numbers are low and when all the test results come out "poor"? Hell yes! Health is a state of mind. I have met plenty of people who are free from "disease" but that I would not call healthy because their emotional, mental, and spiritual lives were out of balance and unsatisfying to them. It's obvious that there's much more to us than our cells and organs, so having a more holistic, non-materialistic view of health and wellbeing is very helpful to me in living a happy life.
Anyway, I could go on and on philosophizing, but the main point is that exercise is not only critical for maintaining physical health, but it also helps us become more complete, happy human beings through the fulfillment of our full potential.
I also want to mention the Cystic Fibrosis Lifestyle Foundation, a national organization that gives grants to people with CF to pay for exercise opportunities that may be financially out of reach otherwise. I get a scholarship from them to go to yoga. Don't let money get in the way of exercising! If you think you could benefit from an exercise grant, please check out CFLF and send in your application (it's really simple and your chances of receiving a grant are very high). Also consider donating to the organization if you're able!