Climbing for Your Life!


Dr. Robert B. Pankey

During a visit to Mexico in 1998, a colleague and I traveled to the village of Tepoztlan, Mexico, to climb a nearby mountain that had a small Aztec pyramid at the top.  Legend had it that the Aztecs used this site to make human sacrifices.  The natives had built a two mile stairway to the pyramid which began at 4,000 feet above sea level and ended at 8,000 feet.  One had to be in pretty good shape to climb the mountain’s steep stairway in the face of low concentrations of oxygen during the climb.

We were also fortunate to be escorted by Pedro Gabrerra, a local resident who was familiar with the mountain.  During the drive to the mountain, Pedro told us of his experience as a college athlete while attending the University of Mexico in 1985.  He played football at the University and during one of his games he sustained an injury which required immediate surgery.  Unfortunately, the transfusion that he was given during the surgery was contaminated with the HIV virus.  Pedro had been living with this disease for over a decade!  Despite his illness and obvious lack of health, he maintained a positive attitude and did his best to eat nutritiously and stay fit.  This was Pedro’s first time back to the mountain since he contracted the virus, and he wanted to see if he could still make it to the top.   Pedro wanted to prove to himself that if he could climb this mountain he could still fight the disease.

As we began to climb it became apparent to my colleague, Bill,  and I that it would be more difficult than we anticipated.  With each step along the two-mile journey, breathing became more and more difficult.  Bill and I were in good physical condition, so we were able to weather the stress and strain of climbing more strongly than Pedro.  During the first mile of our climb, we stopped frequently to allow our friend time to catch his breath and rest a bit.  The mountain was spectacular, beautiful hardwood trees and steep rock cliffs extending high overhead.  The stairway was made of rectangular black stones, winding through small crevices in the mountain, polished from centuries of footsteps.  To have built such a trail was a wonder unto itself.

Half way into the climb, Pedro could go no further.  His legs were shaking and he seemed to lack the energy necessary to keep going.  Although we were sorry to see him stop, we were proud to see that Pedro had done so well to that point.  He told Bill and I to go ahead and he would wait for us until we returned.


Over the years the medical community has come to realize that fitness does not have a curative effect on disease, and for that reason, many physicians tend to see fitness more as a media event with little substance.   Dr. Victor Froehlicker, a prominent heart researcher, confirmed this attitude when he wrote, “There is no definitive evidence that exercise is effective in the primary, secondary or tertiary prevention of disease.”  For this reason the medical community seems to be missing out on the more important elements that fitness can offer patients.  The body is a machine, capable of rebuilding itself, increasing its physical work capacity, increasing its oxygen intake and reducing its stress on the heart.  Physicians, more than any other professionals in health, must understand that exercise can induce a trained state in individuals regardless of their disease.  This trained state leads to higher work capacity, which in turn helps the diseased person lead a more quantitative as well as qualitative life.  Without conditioning and physical strength, Pedro would have never been able to climb as far up the mountain as he did.


Physical conditioning has gained little acceptance in the medical community for one reason: The physicians know too little about exercise physiology.  Doctors have to understand that fitness will benefit the patient regardless of the disease.  From the first day of medical school, doctors are told to treat the whole person.  They are only beginning to be taught how.  As a professor in Exercise Science, I have come to realize that exercise has more to offer in the attainment of maximal work capacity than we can imagine.  More than anything, it can bring the individual to a trained state no matter what the disease.  Once fitness is achieved, the limitations of a diseased person are much less than believed.  Just look at the capabilities of our society’s physically impaired athletes.  Whatever their handicap, these athletes have learned that fitness can help them overcome limitations never thought imaginable.  Through fitness these people achieve new capabilities, new spirit and new futures.

Exercise does not prevent anything; it simply adds to life.  It is the way to achieve maximum function and should always be considered as an entity separate from disease.  Ironically, the people that need to be fit the most, such as those who live with disease, are most often deprived of it.  We are just beginning to find that not only is exercise good for the disease, it is also good for the patient.  Doctor George Sheehan so eloquently stated, “Exercise may be good for diabetes; it is even better for diabetics.  Exercise may be good for hypertension; it is even better for the hypertensive.” And so it goes, exercise may be good for HIV; it is even better for the HIV infected.

On that sunny day in Mexico, Bill and I finished our climb to the top of the mountain.  We stood on the small pyramid, built centuries before our arrival, and imagined how strange the climb must have been for those who were being sacrificed.  Not only were their lives at stake, but they would have to endure a most difficult physical challenge to reach the pyramid only then to be executed.  Bill and I were in awe; we took pictures, sat a while taking in the sun, looking out over the rolling mountains and beautiful town in the distance.  Suddenly we heard a faint voice coming from the top of the trail.  A small, frail man then appeared, sweating and totally exhausted.  It was Pedro! Though it took him more time, he finally made it to the top.  We gave him a “high five” and sat him down beside us.  I will always remember the valuable lesson that he taught me that sunny afternoon: that fitness can also give people hope in the face of adversity and illness.  As Pedro joined us we all sat together overlooking the wonderful colors and valley below.  Then Pedro raised his head, brushed back a tear and said: “I kept saying to myself that if I gave up or quit struggling, I might do the same for the rest of my life!” Fitness allows the athlete in each of us to keep up the struggle and perform well.  We owe those with cardio respiratory illness, hypertension, diabetics, asthmatics and the HIV infected the right to seek the same thing.


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