CF superhero Ben Mudge: From Game Of Thrones to going pro as a personal trainer
As the rest of us adjust to working from home due to Covid-19, for personal trainer and superhero for children with cystic fibrosis Ben Mudge it's business as usual online. He tells Gail Bell about having a 'high risk' conditions in the coronavirus lockdown, and how Jason Momoa persuaded him go professional... kind of
A ONE-TIME cover model for men’s fitness magazines and now an inspirational superhero for children with cystic fibrosis (CF), Ben Mudge is working as normal in these abnormal times – as an online personal trainer.
The Belfast fitness expert who ditched his job as an assistant director on Game Of Thrones to retrain as a gym and nutritional coach, has also recently launched a community-based platform for people who live with CF – the genetic, degenerative disease he has lived with since birth.
Born with cystic fibrosis – and needing emergency surgery when he was just two days old – Ben, who celebrated his 30th birthday last month, continues to smash through predicted CF lifestyle barriers – and, indeed, targets for life expectancy itself.
These days, newborns are routinely tested for CF, which causes sticky mucus to build up in the lungs and digestive system, but 30 years ago, for Ben’s parents, the outlook was very different.
“There was no formal testing for CF back then and my parents were told that I would be lucky if I lived until my 18th birthday,” says Ben, who has also dipped into “proper bodybuilding” in the recent past. “Things are improving all the time and now, with medical advancements, the average life expectancy is up to 47.
“It’s still not ideal, but some people are living much longer than that, although, on the flip side, some people aren’t, so that’s why it’s important for me, working as a personal trainer at the age of 30, to help give young kids with CF the hope they so desperately need.”
He does this by giving talks to schools, engaging online with young CF sufferers and, most importantly, channelling his inner superhero by dressing up as mythical Norse God of Thunder, the hammer-wielding Thor.
And, with Ireland, according to CFI (Cystic Fibrosis Ireland) having one of the highest rates per capita in the world for the life-threatening condition – 300 adults and 200 children are living with CF in Northern Ireland alone – Ben says it was one simple way to try to make the medication look “cool for kids”.
“The Thor story started in a weird way,” he reveals. “I started growing my hair, just because I didn’t like having it short, and then, one day, I was looking up where the days of the week came from and discovered they all have a Norse background. Thursday is, literally, Thor's day. I found all that Norse mythology very interesting.
“Afterwards, I decided to take a photo of me as Thor and put it up on Instagram – hashtag Thorsday – and it all kind of kicked off from there. I started getting messages from parents saying their child really believed I was Thor and asking if I could post a photograph of me doing my nebulisers, so children would be encouraged to take their own medication.
“I was happy to do that, to show children with CF that no matter how small they may be, it is always possible to put on weight, to build muscle and to be as big as their friends. The idea is also, I hope, to prevent a lot of arguments with parents...”
As it happens, his own parents were “brilliant” throughout his early years with CF and insisted on as normal a childhood as possible – at a time when the prevailing CF message was more ‘can’t’ than ‘can do’.
“They did everything right,” says Ben, who lives in Newtownabbey with his wife, Janice. “I was treated the way someone with cystic fibrosis – or any chronic disease – should be treated, in that my parents made me aware of it, but didn’t make it seem like it was a disadvantage. I wasn't stopped from doing anything that my older brother and young sister [both carriers of the CF gene] or my friends were doing and that was huge in terms of the mental side of the illness and being able to cope with it while growing up.”
The “worst thing”, he says, was suffering two separate bowel obstructions because CF affects the normal mucus in the body.
“Mucus in other people is like water in a jar – it moves around very freely – but with me, and others with CF, it’s more like wallpaper paste,” Ben explains. “For this reason, physio is very important, as well as physical activity.”
Although digestive enzymes continue to be part of his daily routine (his pancreas produces a thick mucus which blocks the natural discharge of enzymes needed for digestion), he is happy to report that lung function continues to sit around the “high 90s” – on one occasion, rising to 101 per cent last year.
This, he believes, is in no small part due to his current career, with nutrition and personal fitness (he also plays American Flag Football to a high level) key to keeping well while living with CF – one of the high-risk conditions for Covid-19.
“I have been working as an online coach for about three years now, mainly because of the risk of cross-infection from CF clients, and I have been trying to judge people’s coughs for as long as I can remember, so in way, life in lockdown hasn’t changed a lot,” he says. “And I’m lucky in that I have a good set-up with my garage gym here at home.”
Strangely, in a roundabout way, he has US Game Of Thrones star Jason Momoa to thank for launching him into the fitness industry more than 10 years ago.
After leaving school at 16 following GCSEs, Ben took a film studies course at college and ended up as assistant director on the first season of Games Of Thrones filmed in Northern Ireland. But, he says – without rancour – it proved less glamorous than it sounds.
“One very long day on set, when Jason Momoa was really delaying everything – which I understand now was just because he wanted perfection – I got talking to one of the extras who happened to be a personal trainer.” Ben recalls. “This particular group of extras were all pretty big because they were warriors and I was immediately interested in learning more.
“I was always into training, whether through playing American football, rugby, athletics or whatever, so, you could say it was a bad day at work, a very slow day, that made me re-think my career and put my health first. It was the best decision I ever made.”
As well as defying the odds to become a personal trainer, Ben has also been able to travel widely with his condition, despite his parents being told he would always need an oxygen tank in every hotel room.
“The confidence that CF robbed me of was earned back from going to the gym,” he stresses, “and has definitely helped keep me healthy, along with eating the right foods. I think, being born with CF also helped me develop a positive mental attitude and has made me the person I am today. Without struggles, you don’t find out who you really are.”