How Exercise Kept Me Out of the Hospital Until I Was 26

Last updated: January 2023

Editor’s Note: This article was written by Megan Barlow and originally appeared on our Cystic-Fibrosis.com community.

I have always been active. Since I can remember, I’ve been involved in all different sports by recommendation of my doctor. I wasn’t diagnosed with CF until I was 5 years old, which many of you probably know is relatively late. Once I was diagnosed, my pediatric CF doctor, Dr. Cooper, recommended that my parents get me involved in sports while I was young to keep me active and keep my CF lungs healthier.

Exercise, in my opinion, is another form of treatment for people with CF. I can feel the difference in my body when I exercise versus when I don’t. It helps me move extra mucus out, and it also makes my vest time work harder, because everything’s already loosened up down there in my sticky lungs.

Playing sports with cystic fibrosis

Since I was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis, I have played pretty much every sport: soccer, basketball, softball, gymnastics, swimming, diving, field hockey, lacrosse, track, ultimate frisbee. You name it, I did it. Some sports, like soccer for example, didn’t do it for me (I was a dandelion picker). But a few sports really did stick with me.

I found a love for basketball very early on, starting in third grade and continuing to play on AAU, CYO, and middle and high school teams year-round. I didn’t let CF hold me back from being the best I could be at the sports I loved.

However, playing year-round for many years in a row, and some not-so-great coaches, led to burnout in basketball pretty early for me. By my freshman year in high school, I was mentally done with basketball. I decided to focus my energy on lacrosse. I was able to make the varsity team as a freshman, but I had a coach who was not the best (to put it nicely) and who ended up taking away my love for the sport.

Sports became my passion

Fortunately, enough of my sports stayed with me for long enough to create a real passion for competition. By the time I got to high school, I was involved in 5 different sports before I graduated – basketball and track each for 1 year, swimming and field hockey each for 2 years, and lacrosse for 4 years. My lung function flourished with how active I was – my FEV1 was in the high/mid 90 percents when I graduated. (I can’t remember exactly – it was a long time ago!)

Being a part of these teams meant practices or games 6 days a week, sometimes doubles when it was pre-season. It kept me extremely active and therefore extremely healthy. It also conditioned me to keep this fitness-focused attitude once I graduated, went off to college, and was responsible for motivating myself to keep active.

Once in college, the pressure was on me to stay motivated for the first time in my life. I had to create my own exercise routine, no longer having a coach to do that for me. That’s when I joined the ultimate frisbee team. But I also began running on my own and going to the gym on my own.

I found a new routine that worked for me, and it continued to keep me happy and healthy. I took motivation and tools I had learned from my many different sports and continued to apply them to my workouts. After I graduated, I even was able to train for and finish a half marathon, which I wanted to do ultimately to prove to myself, and others, that CF doesn’t have to hold you back from any goal.

The lasting effects of exercise on cystic fibrosis

I truly believe it is because of how active I have always been that I did not have any exacerbations, IVs, or hospital visits until I was 26 years old. Even with fighting MAC bacteria in my lungs for 8 years (starting around 2012), I have stayed active and diligent. I was able to avoid any treatment until 2017, and it has had limited effect on my lungs (thank goodness), besides one lesion that is now gone.

I am now 28 years old, and to this day, my lung function has never dropped below 80 percent. I don’t think that would have happened without staying as diligent with my exercise routine as I have, and playing sports with cystic fibrosis certainly helped. And yes, I am still an exercise freak 5 years post-college, working out (running, swimming, lifting, cycling, playing frisbee) 5 days a week. And I don’t plan on changing that any time soon.

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