You know regular exercise matters when you have Cystic Fibrosis, but what sort and why?

What is Cystic Fibrosis?

Cystic Fibrosis (CF) is an inherited or genetic disorder that effects around 3,500 Australians. It is not caused by any previous illness suffered by the child or the parents, or by anything that happened during the mother’s pregnancy. It is not contagious either.

CF effects numerous organs in the body but the lungs and pancreas are hardest hit, clogging them with thick, sticky mucus that interrupts their normal function.  Excess mucus in the lungs can cause shortness of breath, a chronic cough and repeated chest infections.  It also commonly causes blockages that affect the pancreas, and this can significantly limit enzymes being released to digest food, causing problems with poor weight gain and malnutrition due to restricted absorption of essential nutrients.

The type and severity of CF symptoms varies from person to person but almost everyone with cystic fibrosis eventually develops lung disease. At what age and to what extent varies from person to person. The thickened mucus builds up in the airways and reduces airflow, it can build up to such an extent that it plugs the smaller airways of the lungs and bacteria can’t be cleared out, this causes infection.

Effective Airway Clearance Techniques are required to help remove this mucus and reduce the likelihood of infection. Exercise can support this movement of mucus by aiding mobility of the lungs and thoracic cage.

Enzyme supplements, supplementary feeding, and vitamin replacement can all assist with compensating for decreased effectiveness of pancreatic enzymes.

Currently, there is no cure for CF, but the contributing genes have been identified and researchers are working to find ways to repair or replace them, and they are also researching medications to treat the complications caused by Cystic Fibrosis.

Why should people with CF exercise?

Because children, teens and adults with CF who exercise regularly tend to do better than those who don’t. Their rate of lung function and overall health decline is generally slower than their inactive counterparts, and their daily function is generally better. This helps those living with CF to feel better overall and to enjoy a more normal lifestyle.

Importantly for those with CF, exercise improves lung function and capacity so, regular exercisers have a little more in reserve to cope with lung infections when they happen. It also improves heart health, so the heart copes better with increased demand in times of illness and stress.

What type of exercise is best?

Like all of us, people with CF benefit from a combination of cardiovascular, resistance and mobility/flexibility training. Each of these has particular benefits for those living with CF, loosening mucus secretions, improving lung function and cardiac fitness, increasing bone density and maintaining movement of our inherent thoracic pump mechanisms are just a few.

This sort of training mix can take many forms so there isn’t any one ideal, what matters most is that the exercise is appropriate for your current fitness and condition. An allied health practitioner such as an osteopath, physiotherapist or exercise physiologist can help you develop a sensible plan for you. They can also help you understand how to adjust it to suit fluctuations in your health.

Cardiovascular training:

  • Walking or hiking
  • Running or jogging
  • Cycling or stair climbing
  • Rowing or swimming
  • Aerobics or dancing

Resistance training:

  • Bodyweight training
  • Kettlebell training
  • Powerlifting or Olympic lifting
  • Calisthenics

Things to be mindful of

  • Weight loss is usually not the goal – poor digestion and absorption can mean meeting the energy demands of exercise needs to be planned for
  • Dehydration – fluid loss can cause mucus secretions to thicken and dehydration itself can be harder to treat in those with CF
  • Salt loss through sweating – salt loss is also a problem, electrolyte drinks can be helpful on this front
  • The environment matters – infection risk is real so be mindful of wiping down all mats and equipment, use your own towels and your own water bottles
  • Vigorous exercise with an infection might not be a good idea as it can increase cardiorespiratory stress. A gentle walk however is often just what the doctor ordered.

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