Focus on Fitness: Exercise for kidney health and reap other benefits

By Gloria Schwartz

March 12 is World Kidney Day: a day to promote awareness of the risk factors for kidney disease and the lifestyle changes you can make to prevent it. It’s estimated that four million Canadians, or between 12 and 15 per cent of Canadian adults, have chronic kidney disease (CKD) and up to 90 per cent of them are unaware that they have it. I’m one of the millions of Canadians who live with CKD and this year I am marking the 25th anniversary of my initial diagnosis.

Living with any chronic disease has its ups and downs, both physical and emotional. As I chronicled in my 2014 memoir and self-help book, Personal Best: Train Your Brain and Transform Your Body for Life, my diagnosis was unexpected. I had no symptoms. Many people don’t find out they have CKD until they are in end-stage kidney failure and require dialysis or a transplant. I was fortunate that my diagnosis occurred during an earlier stage, so I was able to get some medical intervention and regular monitoring; however, my prognosis was not good. I was told I’d likely need dialysis within five years.

Many CKD patients are seniors and have other health issues such as Type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure or obesity. Even the most athletic people can get kidney disease. For example, former Toronto Blue Jays baseball player Tony Fernandez died in February at age 57 from complications of kidney disease. When I was diagnosed, I was young and otherwise healthy. I was not overweight or diabetic. I felt the lifestyle guidance from my doctor was inadequate, with a focus on the disease. I didn’t want to think about disease. I hated that word. After several years of feeling hopeless, I decided to make some lifestyle changes in terms of physical activity and dietary habits.

Through my own research, I learned that healthy lifestyle behaviours including regular exercise can slow the progression of CKD as well as reduce the risk of secondary diseases associated with CKD such as heart disease. Eventually, I took it upon myself to figure out how to become more physically active. With regular exercise and kidney-friendly dietary changes such as reduced sodium and reduced protein consumption, it may be possible for CKD patients to achieve physical changes such as weight loss and blood pressure reduction that are beneficial for kidneys. If you have CKD, it’s best to follow your medical doctor’s advice and take prescribed medications in conjunction with making lifestyle improvements.

Exercise can slow the progression and alleviate symptoms of CKD and other chronic diseases. A meta-analysis of the effects of exercise therapy on 20 common chronic diseases such as heart failure, Type 2 diabetes, different cancers, Alzheimer’s disease and osteoarthritis found that exercise also improves functional capacity (e.g., walking, balance, lower body strength).

There’s no one specific type of exercise that’s best for lowering the risk of kidney disease or for people already living with kidney disease. For patients who are elderly, significantly overweight, have other health issues or have been inactive for many years, it may be realistic to start off with small goals such as walking. In my case, I was able to take on a variety of activities such as strength training, running and different exercise classes, building up my endurance and strength over time. Living with any chronic disease can be depressing and exercise is also good for alleviating mild depression. When you do things that are healthy such as regular exercise, not only do your mood-enhancing hormones increase, but you may feel better mentally about your situation because you gain a sense of some degree of control over your health. Focusing on fitness and health rather than on my disease has helped me mentally.

For people who have kidney failure and are on dialysis, physical activities may be more challenging due to fatigue or side effects of treatment. Each person’s experience may be different. With research or the guidance of a knowledgeable personal trainer, patients can find suitable exercise programs.

Currently, kidneys that are diseased and damaged cannot be repaired. As reported in the February 24 edition of the Ottawa Jewish Bulletin (“Israeli nephrologist says kidneys can be rejuvenated”), Israeli researchers are testing a new procedure to halt the progression of kidney disease ( Perhaps one day, advanced kidney disease and failure will be things of the past. In the meantime, make exercise a priority as it will benefit your kidneys as well as all other parts of your body.