Health & Wellbeing


Lesson 9 Module 4

For me, exercise is a big issue. It's personal. I went (my whole family went) to watch my dad play rugby, every weekend, all over the place. He was very active. My mother played racket sports, I competed in boxing, rugby, Gaelic football, soccer and many other sports. When I finished school and decided on college, I ended up travelling from Ireland to the UK to study, you guessed it, sport!

It was a big part of who I was. When in my second year of college, I was told I had kidney failure, well, you can imagine! Within the space of two weeks I went from being a Sports Student to a Chronic end-stage renal failure patient; kidneys gone, and they were unhappily replaced with dialysis, 3 days a week. Shock, horror, surprise! Did I say shock? You name it, I felt it. And none of it was good!

Time does what time does and moved ever onward. I returned to Ireland with my degree and zero interest in sport, because I couldn't compete. I was now a "sick person", my personal identity in shatters. Within 2 years of my diagnosis I received a transplant. I was 22 and, when I look back, I can see I was totally lost in who I was as a person and what my future held. I had not accepted my health situation, at that point, and assumed a transplant meant I could put dialysis and ill-health behind me, forever.

Soon after the transplant, while reading the Irish Kidney Association magazine, the Transplant Games came on my radar. I trained a little, went, and I remember, at the time, thinking "my body had set me enough challenges, it was time I set my body a few". The Games provided a catalyst in changing my whole direction in life. Exercise is important, yes. Competing, I enjoyed it, but seeing other people with similar health issues to me living a different life, a more positive, proactive life, was a revelation. I finally had role models with kidney disease who were living life far better than I was.

My first event, at my first Games, was in Japan, 2001, and my attitude leading up to it is a story that reveals perfectly my mindset at the time.

I decided to compete in cycling. As a teenager I cycled to school everyday for years, 6miles (10km). I was in my second year with a transplant and because I remembered dialysis so clearly I assumed everyone competing would be considerably older than I was, as that was the situation in the dialysis unit. 

I considered that I might even have a chance to win the Race, and if not, I'd get to see a bit of the beautiful country around Kobe, Japan. When I arrived, after very little cycling training, I saw loads of young people checking their bikes etc. To my mind they were preparing the bikes for their parents. They weren't! 

The Race began at a frantic pace. There was over 50 participants, with each and every person, of all ages, giving it their best effort.  I crossed the line, exhausted, having come 3rd. 3rd LAST that is! 

My mindset up to that point had been that of a 'sick person'. I believed, because I had a chronic illness, that I should take it easy, not push myself, and always stay within my comfort zone. That one event revealed many lessons. Not least the reality behind the saying, "don't take anything for granted"!

The simple fact is that the people I competed against that day did not see themselves as 'sick'. That day, they saw themselves as Athletes, representing their country and doing their absolute best.

Seeing other people doing something, unconsciously gives you permission to do the same. I had no excuse. Yes, I had kidney failure, but my legs and arms were working perfectly, my heart and lungs were in good shape, my brain was ok! 

You do not need to go to the Transplant Games to acquire role-models. There are people all over the world doing extraordinary things while living with kidney disease and kidney failure.

Over the years, especially over the 9 years on dialysis, I thought a great deal about sport and exercise

My core belief behind all this is that our bodies are designed for movement. I have a lot of personal experience in this area and some academic experience with, as mentioned, a degree in Sports & Fitness Studies and also a M.A. in Health Promotion from Irish and UK universities.

I've noticed that once you are diagnosed with a serious health issue, like kidney disease, you are told to slow down, relax, “...nothing strenuous.” To use a car analogy, we are essentially telling ourselves to move in first & second gear only. The problem is that our body’s primary function is to move. To get up, get out and get active. What we appear to do is override this natural urge out of a sense of fear and caution, in case we may cause further complications.

Long periods of inactivity, however, can lead to other illnesses. Because the body’s functions are intertwined and movement plays its part in maintaining health. You may start with one health issue, however, this can morph into many other health issues.

The second thing to be aware of is lack of movement becomes a self-sustaining habit. With kidney disease you may be anemic, low in iron, one of the many side effects of kidney disease. That makes you feel tired, A LOT. The more you are inactive the less energy and interest in life you will feel that you have. Over time, this lethargic rut in which you find yourself will begin to feel normal. It becomes easy to say that you are tired as you have kidney issues and this is “normal” and you need to take it easy.

This is difficult to say but, it becomes very hard to differentiate between being tired due to health issues and laziness! I’m allowed to say that because I know the feeling. I've spent over 11 years on dialysis, in hospital 3 days a week, and I have been tired due to low iron/anemia and I’ve been tired due to laziness. Mentally tired, pissed off with life and the way things are turning out. Of course, we will be forgiven for that because Kidney disease, as we've seen, is hard. However, we need to start being strict, and we need to start thinking of the bigger picture.

So summing up, yes kidney disease is hard, it is easy to do no exercise, to sit and watch TV, to take drugs for blood pressure and maybe cholesterol and vitamin D, due to being indoors so much. Sitting at home, being ‘served’ by others, because you are “sick”, is such an easy trap to fall into. But this attitude does not serve our long-term goal. This is living as healthily as we can and maintaining a good quality of life within the limitations and confines of our health issues.

Now, we can survive kidney disease, or we can thrive with kidney disease...

Unfortunately, most people with kidney disease believe they cannot exercise. The truth is the vast majority CAN exercise.

Regular exercise has the potential to make you feel “normal” and greatly improve the quality of your life. This has been a fact for me and many, many people of all ages with whom I have have interacted, over the years.

Exercise helps you to reclaim the ability to perform day-to-day activities that were enjoyed prior to being diagnosed. This is not only beneficial physically, but also emotionally and socially important.  The simple act of going out for walks with friends and having a chat is vital to physical and mental health.

Other benefits of exercise include:

• Helps with digestion

• Increases your energy level

• Reduces cholesterol levels

• Helps control your blood sugar and blood pressure

• Lowers the risk of heart disease

• Helps you to sleep better

• Helps to decrease stress

So to reiterate, nearly every one with kidney disease, no matter at what stage, can do some type of exercise.

Always ask your doctor before you start any type of exercise program. Your doctor can help you decide what is best for you and give you ideas on what kind of exercises you can enjoy.

Start slowly. Good to talk with fellow patients to see and learn what works for them.

Exercise needs to be balanced with rest, recovery and recuperation

Talk to your healthcare team and start exercising now.

Get up! Get out! Get active! Taking this action will help you regain your life, one small step at a time.