Having been told by doctors that she “probably wouldn’t live beyond the age of 10”, Conley is defying the odds. The star, who shot to fame after publishing her low-fat diet and exercise programme, The Hip & Thigh Diet back in 1988, was diagnosed with asthma at the mere age of two, but was determined not to let the condition hold her back. In fact, as she said in her own words, as a child she was “always active”, having not known what life was like to live asthma-free. A natural-born performer, Conley quickly established herself within the health and fitness industry, but at the age of 20 she suffered from her first asthma attack. After this she was advised by medical professionals to try a different sort of inhaler. But away from all the medication and inhalers to curb her respiratory issues, Conley credits her career for saving her life.
In addition to asthma, around 10 years ago Conley was diagnosed with pseudomonas, a type of bacteria that can cause lung infections. Unlike normal chest infections, pseudomonas may not go away using normal treatments, and can cause a funny taste in a person's sputum (phlegm).
Speaking about her diagnosis, Conley said: “I said, there's something not right with my lungs, because this [phlegm] doesn't taste right. So my doctor said to bring a sample in, and then a few days later he rang me and I was driving and he said ‘Right, you need to pull over. You've got pseudomonas in your lungs.’ I said, ‘What does that mean?’
“He went on to explain that it means I had a really bad infection in my lungs. But he said it's serious. And I said, ‘Is it going to kill me?’
“And so he said, well, ‘Hopefully not.’”
Conley went on to explain that for pseudomonas there is only one drug that tends to work, which is known as ciprofloxacin. If this fails to work in tablet form, individuals are usually taken into hospital for the drug to be administered intravenously.
Fortunately for Conley the drug rid the pseudomonas, but unfortunately her struggle with respiratory conditions was not over. At the end of 2016 she developed whooping cough and soon after that an incurable condition known as bronchiectasis.
According to Asthma + Lung UK, bronchiectasis is a long-term incurable condition that affects the airways in the lungs. Affecting the part of the lung known as the bronchi, the condition causes airways to become inflamed and thick mucus develops. This mucus build up makes it extremely difficult for airways to remain clear, easily becoming infected with bacteria.
This can cause individuals to suffer from frequent chest infections, which if not treated can cause further damage to the lungs.
Amazingly, and through her work as a health and fitness specialist, Conley was able to remain active, and not let her bronchiectasis or asthma interfere with her career. In fact, she claims it was the complete opposite, with her career helping to save her life.
She added: “After I appeared on Dancing On Ice we choreographed and filmed a routine with my professional partner on the show and I took it to show my doctor, Professor Ian Pavord, who said, ‘I can’t believe what you do because your lung capacity is so minimal.’”
Conley explained that by the time she was going to school around age four and five, her lungs were still not developed properly, the potential source to all of her ongoing respiratory trouble. She said: “If I had not followed the fitness journey that I had, my life would be a very different story.
“Through divine intervention, I think, I found a career that basically saved my life.”
When asked how she manages her asthma and bronchiectasis now, Conley spoke about a transformative medication known as Nucala. The monthly injection was one of the first in a new line of treatments designed to treat a specific type of asthma known as severe eosinophilic asthma. Asthma + Lung UK explains that this type of asthma is one of the most debilitating forms of the condition, involving an inflammation of the airways linked to a particular type of white blood cell (eosinophils).
For Conley personally, the treatment has helped to increase her fitness capacity by 25 percent, making her substantial routine of 10,000 steps a day, 30-minute daily walk, twice a week gym sessions, ballet classes and her own personal fitness classes a little easier every time.
She said: “As you get older, everything else starts deteriorating, and so do your lungs. So I need to work on how to maximise them and since I have been on Nucala, my output has been dramatically different. By the time I hit 70, I wondered if I would reach 80 and I did have that conversation with Professor Pavord, but now thanks to Nucala, I think well stuff that, we are going to go much longer than that!”
In addition to keeping fit, Conley spoke about following a healthy diet, going on to say that those who are overweight and are inactive are following a “recipe for disaster”.
It is for this reason that the star thinks that the newly enforced rules of calories on menus selling non-prepacked food and soft drinks is a “brilliant idea”. She said: “I went out about three weeks ago and we went to this lovely little pub but there were three things on the menu that were over 1,000 calories just for a main course.
“And instead of having what I might have had in the past, I opted for a salad with avocado, fruit, feta cheese and all sorts of stuff. It was only 560 calories, it was healthy and I really enjoyed it. It was important because I could make an educated judgement.”
Exercise and diet is critical to Conley’s daily routine, and has been throughout her career, but for those with severe asthma or other respiratory conditions who might be worried about overexerting themselves, Andrew Whittamore, Clinical Director at Asthma + Lung UK, and a practising GP, provides some advice.
He said: “Although exercise can be a trigger for some people with respiratory disease, being active and doing exercise brings many benefits. By making our bodies work a little bit harder we can help our lungs to work more efficiently; this improves how we transport oxygen around the body and improves how we use that oxygen. Because of this, doing regular exercise means that we may start to feel less breathless and less tired and more in control of our breathing.
“As well as that, exercise can help us to maintain a healthy weight, strengthen our muscles and bones and can have a big impact on our mental health. If you have asthma and want to exercise regularly, it’s important to be aware of your triggers.
“For some people, cold, dry air can cause your airways to tighten and get narrower. This can lead to asthma symptoms like coughing, wheezing and breathlessness. Other common exercise triggers are pollution, pollen, or dust. Regardless of what triggers your asthma. Always have your reliever inhaler with you, and to use your preventer as prescribed.”
Asthma + Lung UK is the only charity in the UK fighting for everyone with a lung condition, aiming for a world where everyone can breathe with healthy lungs. The charity funds research and provides advice and support for the 12 million people who will get a lung condition during their lifetime. It campaigns for clean air and for better NHS diagnosis and treatment. For further information visit asthmaandlung.org.uk