Cystic Fibrosis Model Ben Mudge: Why I Love/Hate Cardio

Welcome to Love/Hate Stories, the 657Journal’s series exploring our unique relationship with exercise, by those who’ve fallen for it after years of stubborn resistance.

Ben Mudge is lucky to be alive.

On only his second day on the planet he was rushed into surgery and diagnosed with cystic fibrosis, a genetic disorder affecting the lungs, pancreas, liver, kidneys and intestine.

His parents were told his life expectancy was just 20, but now, 27 years later, the Northern Irishman is a successful fitness model and personal trainer. A Men’s Fitness magazine cover model, he’s the picture of health despite facing the constant threat that a chest infection could shut down his lungs in days.

Here he explains how exercise has helped him defy doctors’ predictions and transform the lives of people suffering from severe illness — and why a chance encounter with a Dothraki set him on this extraordinary course.

This is his exercise love/hate story.

Further reading: Marathon Runner Amy Hughes: Why I Love/Hate Running

I was born with cystic fibrosis. My parents had no idea but they were both carriers of the gene. When I was born I didn’t pass any waste and I went into surgery to make sure everything was OK. It turned out it wasn’t. The surgeon did this operation where they open your stomach, cut it into sections and then put it back together again. I was only two days old and I’ve had the scar from that on my stomach ever since.

When I was diagnosed the life expectancy was only 20. It’s now 43 so it’s doubled in my lifetime. I’m hoping by the time I’m 40 it will have doubled again to 80.

A chest infection could kill me. I have to be very aware of my immune system. When most people get sick mucus will sit in their lungs, they’d cough it up and it’d be gone. For me if the mucus gets in my lungs it can permanently damage the tissue and decrease my lung capacity.

In my eyes, being an organ donor is the definition of a hero.

Multiple infections can gradually reduce your lung capacity to zero so you urgently need a lung transplant. Unfortunately not many people are organ donors so waiting for that is what kills you. But if you are an organ donor, you could be saving multiple people’s lives with your death. In my eyes, that’s the definition of a hero.

I’ve been very lucky with my health. I’ve only been submitted into hospital twice with chest infections. A lung capacity of 100% is the average number for someone my height and weight. Mine dropped to 63% the first time when I was 18. That was crippling for me. Running up the stairs would put me out of breath. That happened twice but both times I managed to get my lung capacity back to 100% which is something they said I couldn’t do. I did because I’m stubborn.

Further reading: Yogi Cat Meffan: Why I Love/Hate Being Flexible

Getting back to full health was a daily battle. I started training at 16 just before I got sick. I noticed I couldn’t train as long as I was used to. After I got out I kept at the exercises until I rebuilt the capacity to train longer. I also worked at a corner shop two miles from my parents’ house in Jordanstown in Northern Ireland. I used to run to it to get to work. I’d get there a bit out of breath but nothing severe. When I was sick I couldn’t do that, I’d have to get a lift. So I thought if I was going to get back to where I was I needed to start by walking down, then slow jogging, then getting faster until I was able to get back to where I was. It took a couple of months but it felt like a lifetime.

Doing cardio exercise has helped restore my lung capacity to nearly 100%. For a healthy person exercise helps increase aerobic capacity and it’s also worked for me so far. I’ll regularly swim, run and do cardio-based activities like some CrossFit workouts.

I love discovering new ways to work out. My big focus is on enjoyment.

I love discovering new ways to work out. My big focus is on enjoyment. I don’t really struggle to train. People need to put more focus on enjoyment of the session rather than optimisation. Do things you enjoy rather than things that are optimal for what you want to achieve. Would you rather do exercise that you can keep up for 12 months and enjoy it and make slow progression or would you rather do exercise that you really despise, that will get you there faster but you’re going to hate every minute of it?

Part of the reason I love exercise is because of my obsession with Superheroes. I’m a complete nerd by the way. I wear a Zoom T-shirt for sprint workouts. Whenever I’m lifting weights I’ll wear a Thor T-shirt. I imagine I’m lifting Thor’s hammer. I get the tops from a Japanese company called Novelty Force.

Ten years ago I wish someone had warned me about the slump you get after training hard for something. I found that out the hard way when training for a bodybuilding competition. It’s the same with a lot of transformations or crash diets and anything that’s laser focused. Once you achieve it your focus refracts off everything and you’ve got nothing to aim for. It’s vital you have a secondary goal after you achieve that first one.

The best piece of advice I was ever told was to become a personal trainer. Being a PT has let me make a positive difference to people’s lives, especially a lady called Sarah Lynas. In her mid-twenties she was diagnosed with both Hodgkins lymphoma and non-Hodgkins lymphoma. Both times she was told she was going to die that year but she didn’t. She came to me because she said I knew what it’s like to be sick and how to get better, she knew health was my main priority.

Being a PT has let me make a positive difference to people’s lives.

In the first session she looked visibly unwell and had no confidence. She couldn’t walk on the treadmill for five minutes without having to sit down. We slowly used resistance exercises to build up her strength. Now, 15 months later, she’s back in full-time employment, she’s deadlifting 50kg, she’s doing all these incredible things and she’s been given the 100% all clear. She went from death’s door back to relative normality. It’s been amazing to be part of.

You can learn more about Ben Mudge here, follow him on Instagram here and on Twitter here.

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