A dedication to weight training, along with a healthy diet and sensible living, has helped a New South Wales man dramatically counteract some of the lesser-known side effects of living life with serious asthma – particularly long-term corticosteroid use.
Mark Mathers, at 55, has now built a career as a Fitness Instructor and Assistant Gym Manager, and he encourages others with asthma to remain disciplined and positive to help manage their own difficult health conditions.
Apart from breathing challenges, he revealed side-effects like loneliness that can lead to depression, the frustrations of continual medications, various complications from prescription drug overuse, and the general extra precautions needed to cope with ordinary issues like changes in the weather and minor sniffles.
“It can be a very lonely condition, because if nobody else in your family has it, then it’s not relatable,” Mark explained.
“They might ask how you feel, and you might reply, ‘Not the best,’ but they may not grasp that it might be a struggle to stand up and walk to the kitchen and come back without being out of breath.
“The best analogy I have is sometimes it’s like breathing through a straw. It’s very tough.”
However, Mark’s workouts have helped him better cope. It has improved his discipline but also helped halt the degrading of his bones caused by long-term use of oral corticosteroids, lifesaving medicine that controls serious asthma flare-ups but unfortunately can have debilitating physical side-effects.
“The benefits are it does get you back to normal pretty quickly, but it has its downsides,” he said.
“I’ve literally got filings in every tooth in my mouth, and I’ve got several teeth that have had to be rebuilt over the years… I’ve been osteopenic for probably 20 years, and the next step below that is osteoporosis, and it’s just from the ongoing corticosteroid use; it’s those side effects, depending on your severity, that you’ve got to deal with.
“Our bones and muscles get stronger by working against resistance, so body building has helped keep my bones healthy, and the lifestyle that I follow because of that has kept me healthy throughout the many years I’ve been doing it.
“I started on it, liked it, enjoyed it, and it’s something I’ve done now since the age of about 18.”
Corticosteroid use also causes Mark to experience insomnia and hunger, but he counteracts that by taking the drug early in the day and staying disciplined with his diet. He also lives with allergic rhinitis, which causes hay fever in spring and autumn, vocal cord damage from the regular inhaling of medication, and gastric reflux – all associated with his asthma and medications.
Corticosteroids like prednisone, prednisolone and dexamethasone, are powerful anti-inflammatory medicines, either in tablet or injected form, that work to quickly reduce swelling and mucus production in the lungs, providing lifesaving relief during critical asthma flareups.
As Mark’s experiences reveal, despite their effectiveness, corticosteroids cause debilitating side effects from prolonged use. Their effectiveness means their use is often unavoidable, so it’s important that people with asthma receive the right doses of these important medicines, and only when needed.
Good control of asthma by regular preventer use helps reduce the need for corticosteroids.
For Mark, asthma has been an ever-present challenge since childhood. His education was interrupted by many days away from school to manage his flareups – some years he missed entire terms due to his breathing problems. He also sat out of sporting activities to avoid triggering a flareup.
“I was always out of breath and have to take some medicine or use the puffer, so I wasn’t really a very over-active kid,” he said.
“It was very frustrating to see all the other kids running around, and I remember I couldn’t go out of the house in the morning any earlier than 10am, because of the night air, and had to be inside again by 4pm, mainly during winter.”
As a teen, his breathing difficulties and regular coughing contributed to a poorly developed chest and hunched shoulders. It was his doctor who first suggested he attend a gym to try to rectify his physical problems, a strategy that worked wonders for Mark under the guidance of then gym owner and trainer Ian Riley, an Australian champion body builder.
The weight training has been a key to maintaining the best possible level of health.
Mark’s specialist still prescribes Prednisone as a vital element of his overall asthma plan, but his bone density readings have not deteriorated further for the past two decades.
“If the puffers aren’t working, then Prednisone is literally the next step,” he said.
““I know for myself, at the right dose per day for a week, it feels like all my other aches and pains just disappear, but I have to remember that this is short term; it’s not going to last forever. If I’m going to be on it for too long, then it’s not going to be good for the body.
“If they could find another alternative that could have the benefits without the long-term side effects, it’d be amazing. I think that’d be a game changer in the asthma world.”
Mark has no plans to give up his weight training and exercise regime, to ensure the best for his asthma.
“I still struggle sometimes now – I can feel 100% well, take all the medication, and I’ll do something and be partially out of breath – or it’ll be triggered by something, whether it’s stress or anxiety, or even exerting myself too quickly, and it can be unexpected,” he explained.
“I guess you learn to live with it over time, you know your limitations, what your body can and can’t do, and you know your triggers, and it’s learning to manage that.
“You can still exercise when you’ve got asthma, but you might think, ‘Well, this week, I might take a couple of days off, or slow down my exercise routine just enough to keep me on track’.
“Even that small little thing is a win.”