Martial Arts Helped Me Stay Healthy With CF

Growing up, I always tried to stay active, but it wasn’t until I was hospitalized that I decided martial arts would be the outlet to keep me healthy and boost my confidence.

| 6 min read
Frederick Merz taking a selfie in front of the Okayama Castle
Frederick Merz
Frederick Merz kneeling with a sword during iaido practice

When I was diagnosed at the age of 7, I really didn’t worry about my mortality — I was 7! Since infancy, my mom and grandmother (who was a nurse) thought there was something wrong with me, but they couldn't quite figure it out. It wasn’t until my youngest sister had complications at birth that the mystery of my health began to unravel. The standard procedure after a complicated birth was for a group of hospital staff members to stop by our house as a follow-up. This is when my mom called me over and started asking them questions about me. They suspected cystic fibrosis and referred us to the children’s hospital that had a CF clinic. There, they gave my siblings and me the sweat test, and I was the only one who was diagnosed with CF.

My CF seemed mild — I was mainly plagued with frequent digestive issues, although I would also easily catch colds and sometimes get walking pneumonia. I think some of my mild issues had a lot had to do with my mom’s attitude of not restricting me in any way — from what I ate to what activities I did. I was encouraged to do things that have physical benefits, such as playing outside with my brothers or even getting involved with sports. But as the second oldest of five, I never felt I was the eldest because I often seemed to follow behind my two younger brothers during my childhood.

The year that I was diagnosed, my mom had asked my two brothers and me whether we wanted to join a hockey league . I had no idea what hockey was and thus was not interested until I realized that it looked like fun. So, I spent that year learning how to skate and went on to play for three seasons before it came to an end.

My time in junior high and high school was mostly spent on studies, and I didn’t do any organized sports. I was an introverted person in those days and would come across occasional confrontations, in which my siblings supported me a bit when it was too much for me. But I thought I probably wouldn’t be capable of standing up for myself as I got older. 

As time went on, the life expectancy for CF patients had seemed to follow behind me. Even though I didn’t feel my health degenerate, I was still under the impression that CF was deadly and not something that would allow me to plan big for the future. 

It was right after high school graduation that I had my first I.V. hospitalization treatment. I was 18 then, and it really caught me off guard. I had just spent the day before running around with the neighborhood kids playing touch-football.

As I sat in the hospital that week, I decided to join a martial arts club because I was determined to do something I would enjoy to stay healthy and out of the hospital.

The idea was sparked from watching Friday night kung-fu movies and seeing Chuck Norris become popular at that time. I was told that martial arts would develop the physique and mentality to build the confidence to stand up for myself if I’m teased for my health issues like I was during my school days.  

I found some tae kwon do classes being offered at the local community center, which I found out later was run by my dad’s co-worker. As I progressed, my dad’s co-worker offered me a more economical opportunity to join his main school, which I attended for four years. I reached first-degree black belt and was striving toward my second degree when a job offer took me out of state.

I still wanted to practice martial arts, so I decided to look into judo that was offered at my alma mater. Even though I practiced for seven years, I never even reached first degree in judo. However, I realized only years later that all those breakfalls helped with my postural drainage. During those years with the judo club, I competed in a few tournaments, winning third place in my division at one tournament — looking back, that was marvelous!

Throughout the years in judo, I had also delved into aikido, a close relative to judo. Between judo, aikido, and hearing more Japanese in my neighborhood, I had the crazy idea to learn the Japanese language and found a university that taught it. As I enrolled in the fall semester, I discovered another aikido club with a more interesting style —one of the aikido practitioners was also practicing iaido, a Japanese swordsmanship style.

During my Japanese language studies, I came across a pen pal advertisement and thought I’d speed up my learning curve by communicating with a native Japanese speaker. After exchanging correspondence with a number of people, I connected with someone, and we became fond of each other. We met, got married, and I moved to Japan.  

I wanted to continue judo when I came to Japan but had a rude awakening that after so many years practicing in the States, I was never properly taught the basics. So, with too many factors in continuing judo, I decided to retire from it and began practicing iaido and aikido at the same time. 

Unfortunately, about six months away from my first dan in aikido, I had a serious injury, permanently dislocated my collarbone, which added to a severed tendon in my knee from judo many years earlier. I sometimes wish I could get back into iaido, but I have to consider something safer like aerobics because I’m no longer young. I must continue to find ways to stay healthy and active.

Though sadly our marriage did not last, I'm doing very well for a 58-year-old CF patient working in Japan and have enjoyed making it my home.

Interested in sharing your story? The CF Community Blog wants to hear from you.

This site contains general information about cystic fibrosis, as well as personal insight from the CF community. Opinions and experiences shared by members of our community, including but not limited to people with CF and their families, belong solely to the blog post author and do not represent those of the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, unless explicitly stated. In addition, the site is not intended as a substitute for treatment advice from a medical professional. Consult your doctor before making any changes to your treatment.

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Frederick Merz taking a selfie in front of the Okayama Castle

Fred has been living and working in Japan for the last 30 years. He is a graduate of Henry Ford Community College in Dearborn, Michigan, and worked in a variety of roles in the United States before moving to Japan to work in the electronics industry. His many hobbies include computers, photography, radio-controlled cars, and guitar. He currently resides in the Kansai area with his partner, Kumiko.

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