An Athlete’s Long Journey to Overcoming Asthma
I’m a late-lift athlete, a female weight lifter, but not the kind that lifts super-heavy weights for one rep. I lift a moderate weight; 44lb or 53lb for 10 minutes straight, typically 5 minutes for each arm for reps in the hundreds. It’s a power endurance feat called Kettlebell Sport. In the past 6 years I’ve earned the titles of World Champion, World Record holder and national records holder and now, at 50 years young, I compete with women half my age.
You wouldn’t know it, but growing up I suffered from debilitating asthma, the kind that has one leaning over with hands on my thighs, gasping for breath through thick wheezes caused by emotions, anxiety and especially exercise.
I can remember the first asthma experience, occurring was when I was very young. It was nighttime and I woke my Mother, telling her I couldn’t breathe. She quickly grabbed my sister’s asthma meds from the bathroom cabinet and gave it to me. From then on, I would be burdened with heavy wheezing each and every time I would play at school recess and during requisite after-school sports activities. Asthma would also affect me when I was away from home, probably due to separation anxiety or fear. Over the course of 40 years I’d been hospitalized 4 times, the third time with a blue face and fingernails and what resulted in a 5-day stay.
Physical activity was something I always enjoyed but couldn’t endure for very even short periods of time without wheezing. Wanting to do something physically, I took up theatrical dance classes in my teens, which were perfect since there was a consistent stop-start element to it. I loved music, learning techniques and of course moving.
As I grew into my late twenties, I joined a local gym and began rudimentary weight training. Each day as I dutifully lifted weights from the program designed by the new-member trainer, all the while I could hear hour-long shouts of exuberance coming from the fitness studio: “WOOT! LOVE THIS SONG! ONE MORE TIME! KEEP MOVING!” The music was loud, the women (and a couple of men) were jumping, kicking and traversing the room with such energy, speed and manic joy, it permeated the whole gym. Once the class was over, I’d watch with curiosity, as they’d drift out of the studio, smiling with their clothes drenched in sweat.
Bored with my solitary weight routine, I had to give the class a try. I settled myself in the back row of the studio, where years of dance classes taught that newcomers belonged. The instructor enthusiastically greeted me, the women were friendly and very energetic. They were almost twice my age, with husbands, jobs and… children! How did they do it?
And I could not keep up.
Well, I could, for less than 2 minutes. Then I’d have to turn my back to the class, bend down to the floor and pick up my inhaler, which lay next to my towel and water. I’d then wait for my breath to return, unknowingly waiting for my heart rate to come down, which enabled my breathing to settle. This process usually required another minute, depending on how hard I had pushed while moving. But I always gave my all, that was the fun of moving. The class was by necessity an interval workout for me, instead of the intended hour-long aerobics session that it was for everyone else. The inhaler was typically ineffective after the first 2 puffs, but puff away I did, as it was my only source of imagined help during that very long period of time.
I didn’t know if I’d ever be able to keep up with the pace of my classmates, I just did the best I could, each day. The decision to take the class changed my life. I was there enjoying the music and the movement, focused on the choreography, getting my leg lifted, getting my arms higher, trying to do what they were doing. And it was challenging, yet such fun.
This is where I stayed for a solid year, in the back of the studio. With my inhaler, with my pauses. Then I started jogging, very slowly, with stops when they were needed, about every quarter mile. Six miles required just short of two hours, but the love of moving kept me going month after month, as tedious as it was. After that first year, I started a boxing class, which was the beginning of the focused, hard-working mindset I would come to live in years later. Boxing conditioning was very challenging and once again took everything I had to muster through. Very slowly, my lungs were getting stronger and endurance improving. My body started to change its appearance to a leaner, stronger shape, making me happy and eager for more. And so it continued for another 4 years; classes and jogging, all without medications but for the inhaler, though I was using it only two or three times per day now.
Today I’m asthma-free and very aware of the items that bring on wheezing, especially certain foods; sugar, syrups, gluten, dairy. Had I known this decades ago, the experience would have been easier, but we live and learn. Years ago I had my last visit with the pulmonary specialist who had treated me after one of my hospitalizations. I mentioned reading about certain foods exacerbating asthma. His response was, “Food does not cause asthma.” That was the last time I saw him. While it may be true in semantics that food does not cause asthma, it can certainly lead to inflammation, which brings about asthmatic symptoms. Be aware of your triggers, don’t give up and fall inlove with movement!