Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) is one of the toughest, most intense combat sports out there. Becoming a fighter is hard, even for the healthiest of people. To become a fighter with CF is hard to comprehend, but that’s just what Aaron Aby has done. His remarkable story can be seen in two excellent short films, Fighting to Breathe and A Day in the Life. In this interview, Aaron talks about how his upbringing, diet, fitness regime and support network allow him to compete, as well as how he worked his way back from a rock bottom after a huge operation.
Martin) Aaron, thanks for taking the time to talk to us! Before you took up MMA, you were very successful at youth level football – was being so active something instilled in you by your parents? Have you been playing sports for as long as you remember?
Aaron) I always loved sports growing up. I found every activity fun and wasn’t forced into any at all. I would just come home from school and ask to go and try local sports clubs, etc. My friends were very active and my parents always told me to be like them, so from a very young age I would do everything they would do. My mum and dad always encouraged that. My dad played rugby at the top level in England but never forced me into any sport, they just encouraged it. It just happened and, as a child, football was my favourite and they supported me with it.
M) How has being so active with sport helped you manage your CF?
A) It honestly has had a massive impact on my health. I would be really active both in school and after school. We would all finish school and meet somewhere to do physical activities and play sports as a group of friends. If we weren’t playing off our own backs we were playing at a local club. We use to play big games of manhunt over the whole village. I think we would easily cover over 10 miles per night playing that game. There were no Play Stations back then, you’d just knock on your mate’s door and go off out to play!
I would be just as fit as my friends; in fact, I would even say that I was the fittest. I use to run cross country for the school and was ranked in the top 10 in the country at kids’ level. I was fortunate to have active friends and parents and that rubbed off on me. I could never sit still! It was constant play.
M) What advice would you give to parents of young children with CF regarding keeping them as healthy as possible?
A) I would recommend all types of activities. Team sports help a child to grow as a person and become more comfortable with CF. Individual sports help a child become independent. Try them all and make sure they enjoy them. It can be any activity – dog walking, running, gymnastics, tennis, football, anything. Physical play will help the body and the mind.
I would also advise them to focus on both nutrition and exercise and to never hold their child back. Encourage them to pursue anything they want. I was never treated differently to my friends growing up so I thought I was the same. I actually thought they had to take medication too! As I grew up and became comfortable with who I was and what I needed to do, they became comfortable with me.
Confidence is important and sports and activity have helped with that, but so did my family and friends. Having a healthy mind helped with a healthy body and vice versa.
Also, as a child I made sure I ate healthily. To encourage me, my parents would tell me my favourite sportsmen ate the same to perform well! I had limited chocolate and sweets but plenty of greens and good carbs to fuel training. Spinach to be like Popeye and meat to be like The Rock 🙂
M) Aside from the daily healthcare (nebulisers, etc.), have you always had to train harder than your peers to achieve the same level of fitness?
A) I have, but I wanted to work harder, I enjoyed it. I had always been told that you get out what you put in. I would wake up before school at 6am and get extra practice in. That’s what my heroes had done and it was great having people like that as my role models. My parents encouraged it and I followed suit. If I worked hard at anything, whether that was sports or school, I knew the results would come. So I think because I worked harder I actually became fitter. The older I become though, I know it’s also about smart work as well as hard work.
M) Given that you must need to take in so many calories, can you get away with eating whatever you want, or do you still need to eat healthy? (i.e. no junk food?)
A) No junk food! Maybe a few times a month but that’s it. Junk food makes you feel like junk. You get out what you put in. I actually think nutrition is more important than people realise. If I trained hard but ate junk I would still have bad blows. If I just ate healthy and didn’t train (if I was injured for example) my blows would still be good. If I do both then I’m at maximum health.
Nothing frustrates me more than when people think all calories are good. Bad calories = bad health. Good calories = good health. 1,000 calories of chocolate is not the same as 1,000 calories of vegetables. I hate it when CF parents are feeding their children unhealthy food to help them gain weight. Weight does not matter if it is unhealthy weight. Unhealthy food will cause you all sorts of health problems. Good nutrition will bring you great health. It is just as strong as medication. I believe stronger. Health really does start in the kitchen…
M) What is a typical breakfast for you?
A) Typical breakfast depends on the day ahead. On more intense days I eat more, on less intense days I eat a bit less. Today I had;
Two Poached Eggs
Spinach and kale
and an apple.
For drink I had water and green tea.
It was a busy morning of training so I needed the fuel to perform well!
M) What is a typical lunch/dinner for you?
A) It normally involves a protein source. I always get organic meat, for example;
I also have an unlimited amount of vegetables and 1 full avocado for some essential fats.
M) What types of snacks do you eat and when?
A) 2.5 hours before training I will normally have a carb source, such as sweet potato or brown rice with some hemp seeds.
One hour before training I will have some fruit.
After training I make my own post workout shake to drink immediately after with:
2 handfuls of blueberries
It doesn’t always taste great but post training nutrition is vital. There’s a 45 minute window of opportunity for this after training which cannot be missed.
Generally though, I snack on fruit and nuts.
M) What supplements do you take (e.g. protein, extra vitamins, etc.)?
A) I don’t take whey protein or anything like that. I try to avoid all chemicals and whey is full of artificial sweeteners, etc. I don’t focus on calories, I focus on ingredients. I like hemp protein as its natural and a plant protein.
I take Vitamins C, D, E and K.
I also take fish oil, zinc and magnesium to help me recover. That’s it.
M) What training do you do to maintain or increase your lung function & how often?
A) I just follow my normal training regime, eat well and my lung function follows on from that. I wouldn’t do anything specific to increase my lung function, training every day helps with that.
I do, however, feel a great benefit from hill sprints, circuits at my gym and sparring. Anything that makes me breathe heavily. I probably train a minimum of 10 times a week and I mix the hard with the soft.
M) What training do you do to increase your stamina/endurance & how often?
A) I normally work one high intensity circuit per week and one high intensity sparring session. I mix this in with technical training, and weight lifting.
I always stay active and healthy so the only things I need to change are technical. Balance is key for my sport and technique is important. Fitness and endurance are there all year long and are part of my general health.
M) What training do you do to increase your strength & how often?
A) I lift weights once a week, sometimes twice a week if I’m trying to add size. I get a lot of strength training from wrestling and throwing other people around! We are constantly manipulating and moving each other’s bodies around so that is great for strength.
M) Any other type of exercise you need to do to be fighting fit?
A) I fit in my technical sessions with boxing, kickboxing, wrestling, Brazilian jiu-jitsu, judo, flexibility and mobility.
I would also call meditating exercise. It’s exercise for the mind which is important.
M) All this intense training must weaken your immune system making you vulnerable to bugs – how do you minimize this? (e.g. if you build in lots of rest days, how often and how long for, etc?)
A) This is one of the smartest questions I’ve been asked. You can’t constantly beat up your body by pushing it to its limits all the time. I use a traffic light system;
Red = light session
Orange = medium session
Green = intense session
After a green session there must either be rest or a red session. The hard has to be balanced out with the soft. I have to maintain my nutrition and sleep and listen to my body when it is telling me I need some rest time.
Sleep, rest, training and nutrition. They all play an important part in health, especially as you get older. Nowadays I can’t be doing the things I was doing when I was 16! I have to be smart. The yin and the yang…
M) Given how damaging colds are for people with CF, they must be especially disruptive for a sportsman with CF. Are you particularly careful about avoiding colds? If so, what precautions do you take?
A) Yeah nobody wants a cold. I will wash my hands constantly and make sure I eat healthy foods and maintain my medication. Sometimes you have to be selfish and refuse to be with people who are ill. My sister gets colds and bugs all the time so sometimes I have to avoid all contact with her.
A cold can be damaging and set you back so you have to be careful. Generally though I find that because I train, get good amounts of sleep and high quality nutrition I tend not to get them very often. Good food can really help with a super immune system.
M) A few years back you had a massive operation that required you to have two feet of your colon removed. To make things worse, post op complications led to your lung collapsing. Remarkably, within three months you were back in the gym even though you had to learn to walk again after the op. How did you cope during the darkest period? Did you ever let doubt enter your mind? Did you set yourself goals?
A) It was a tough time. I could have looked at it as a dark time but I instead decided to view it as a challenge. Challenges motivate me. I had great support from the people around me and tried to remain positive. My dad gave me a talk one night about how I need to start fighting it and having a positive mind, so that’s what I started to do.
From that day on I showed improvements every day. They didn’t want me to walk so I walked. They said I would not fight again so I fought. I had to prove people wrong and the challenge motivated me.
I set goals, obtained help from people in the field and had my people around me helping me and keeping me motivated.
Doubt would enter my mind but I would replace it with positive thoughts or actions. I would keep daily notes of my progress and could always look back and see the improvements I had made. Set-backs can either damage you or you can view them as something positive. That’s what I tried to do – I tried to turn a negative into a positive.
M)During those post op months when you were building up from such a low point, how did your fitness regime differ from your usual regime?
A) Ahhhhh, it would be completely different at the start. My first fitness session was a 1 mile walk. It felt so tough and I ached for days after!
I had to rebuild my foundations again starting with walking and stretching. Then I would move into movements with just my body. It was a slow process but I got better and improved with every session. It wasn’t a case of jumping back in. I had to be smart about it and do it the right way. I had gone from training twice a day to once a week at first, mixed in with stretching, movement and physical training.
It was a different routine to grow back into my old routine. But I used it to create an even better Aaron Aby. A stronger and more flexible Aaron Aby. I could focus on some weaknesses and use time to improve them.
M) Was your diet different during that period too?
A) Nutrition was the same. Nutrition is vital for recovery after any operation to help you grow back strong and healthy. I had lost a lot of weight in hospital so it was a case of focusing on getting the vital nutrients back into my system. It was a case of eating well, keeping the immune system up and helping my body repair after a stressful time. Without correct nutrition this cannot be done. Even though I was doing no fitness training for three months after the op, my lungs were still strong because my nutrition was so good.
M) In this period straight after the operation, what did your family and friends do to help you? What advice would you give to family and friends of other people with CF who are fighting back from rock bottom?
A) My family, friends and girlfriend were great. They were supportive, helpful and constantly re-assuring me that I would be back. They weren’t being careful with me but motivating me. They would be there if I needed them. Sometimes I would just need some stick off my friends to make me laugh, or my mum helping to cook me a healthy meal! Whatever I needed they were there for me.
But they would make sure I was there for myself also. If there was anything I could do without help they would make sure I would do it. Anytime I was feeling sorry for myself they would remind me of what was ahead. That’s all I needed. They were great. You have to know the individual you are dealing with and they knew how to motivate me.
M) Is there any other advice you’d like to give to anyone with CF, or anyone with a loved one with CF, that has helped you to achieve such a high level of fitness?
A) My advice is hopefully in the answers I have given. I was never held back, told to dream big and that anything was achievable. I believed it too. My parents encouraged me to take on anything. They made sure of it. I had a great group of friends and active, positive people around me. One piece of advice I would give to people is always question the doctors. Develop your own knowledge and don’t be a yes man without finding out why they might be doing something. Every individual is different and make sure that you know your own body better than everyone else.
Dream big, enjoy every day and attack life with all you have!
A big thank you to Aaron for talking to us. Find out more about Aaron on his excellent blog or follow him on Twitter on @aaronabymma
*ALWAYS ENSURE YOU SPEAK WITH YOUR MEDICAL TEAM BEFORE MAKING ANY HEALTH RELATED CHANGES TO YOUR LIFESTYLE*