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Running for a Breath

Posted Aug 21 2012 2:00pm

I remember that day very well.  It was my second year of high school, and the group of us was lining up to take the President’s Physical Challenge, specifically the endurance/run walk, which in our school’s case included a run around the school ½ mile track.

According to the school officials it wasn’t a race.  The only goal was to do your personal best.  We knew better than that.  It was a race, and whoever came in last owed everyone a slice of pizza down at Paul’s Pizza, a neighborhood restaurant and high school hang out.

So with the cherry “Go!” from our PE instructor, we raced down the track, each one edging in front of the other, then falling behind a few steps while another surged ahead.  Surprisingly, since I was in no way an athlete, I was holding my own, my arms and legs pumping and moving to the rhythm of my heartbeat.  Everything and everyone around me seemed to fade away, save for that one lone runner, who was always just a few steps out of my reach.

As it had begun, the race ended in a blur.  I had been clocked at a more than respectable time for my age group, and more importantly I came in second place, safe from having to ask my mom for money for ten slices of pizza. 

But I wasn’t rejoicing, or celebrating my victory.  I was dizzy, feeling sick to my stomach, and no matter what I did, I could not get air past my throat.

I couldn’t breathe.

Then, like a wave, the blackness swept over me.

The next thing I knew, I was in the school nurse’s office, listening to her measured voice talk on the phone to my mother.  I heard her say something about breathing problems, and that my mother should take me to the doctor right away.  There was more conversation, of course, but by then I had closed my eyes once again and drifted off.

Soon I was diagnosed with what was commonly known as exercise induced asthma.  Like millions of people around the world, there were certain things that apparently could take my breath away, and not in a good way.  Through time, effort and careful monitoring I discovered what those things were, and learned to adjust my life accordingly.  I also learned something else.

Unlike most asthma sufferers, who can help to control their symptoms through drugs, diet and exercise, I discovered that my asthma was drug resistant.   In essence, the prescription, over the counter drugs, and inhalers commonly given to treat asthma did not work for me.  Not only did the drugs not work, but my body had an adverse reaction to them.  Sometimes I would break out into hives, sometimes I would have a stronger, more severe asthma attack, and sometimes I would simply pass out.  My doctor and I tried just about every type of asthma medicine that we could fathom.  Some would work for a while, but within a few months, my body would react to them with disastrous effects.

I learned that sometimes, just sometimes the medicine the doctor has is not the medicine you need.

So with my doctor’s blessing, I did a bit more research.  I discovered that there were many things that could be done to help control my asthma.  I could make small changes to my diet.  I could try to get on a regular sleep pattern.  I could exercise more.

Exercise more?  I shook my head, the small voice of disbelief echoing those words in my mind.  But exercising more had led to this whole mess, hadn’t it?  It didn’t make sense.  How could doing something that triggered my asthma attack lead to the successful management of the disease?  So I did a bit more research, read journals, talked to doctors, and other people with asthma.

For the most part, they agreed that moderate exercise was essential for treating asthma.

So, thinking I had nothing left to lose, and knowing that nothing else was working, I started to exercise.  It was slow at first, a walk up to the street corner and back, and three push-ups in the morning, and the occasional lap in the pool at my school.

Soon it was more.  I was walking at a brisk pace around the block.  I was doing ten push-ups instead of three, and I was walking up a flight of stairs without the accompanying wheezing and coughing.

Despite my disbelief, I was truly breathing again.  I was breathing, with the air reaching past my throat, down into my lungs and throughout my body.  Regular exercise had done something that no drug, no pill, and no inhaler had been able to accomplish.  It had given me back my breath.

Do I still have asthma?  Of course; and I always will.  Asthma is one of those things that stays with you and can only be managed.  And while diet and medication can be fantastic ways to help manage the symptoms, it is important to remember that regular moderate exercise can also play a major role.  Getting regular exercise, such as a walk around the block, or playing a game of basketball with your friends is an essential part to your daily health. 

And in some cases it can save a life.

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