Exercise Provides Physical, Mental Boost for People with COPD

Dorian Martin Health Guide
  • I watched Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease slow down my mother, starting in the late 1990s. A vital woman who was always on her feet and moving when she ran her own business, COPD slowly but efficiently zapped her energy and endurance. She had never had an exercise plan, so as COPD damaged her lungs, Mom became increasingly sedentary. I believe that her inactivity set up Mom for a downward spiral that resulted not only in increasing limitations in lung capacity  but also increasing memory problems that resulted in a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease in 2005.

    So are there ways to slow down COPD? First of all, I think it's important to learn about this condition. According to the National Heart Lung and Blood Institute, COPD is a progressive disease that causes difficulty in breathing and continues to worsen over time. The term COPD includes emphysema and chronic bronchitis, and is often a result of smoking cigarettes.  COPD can result in coughing that brings up large amounts of mucus, wheezing, chest tightness as well as shortness of breath. It’s the third leading cause of death in the United States. NHLBI notes that while millions of people have been diagnosed with COPD, many people may have the disease but are unaware of it.  This disease is most often diagnosed in adults who are middle-aged and older.

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    The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) provides a different look at COPD through the lens of being active. ACSM notes that COPD can lead to an increasingly sedentary lifestyle, continued deterioration in a person’s ability to function and potential isolation because the person is homebound. “With progressive inactivity, cardiovascular function and skeletal muscle mass decline,” ACSM stated in a “Current Comment” paper. “The deterioration in aerobic fitness and strength creates a vicious cycle that leads to greater breathlessness with exertion, muscular fatigue, an eventual loss of functional independence, and depression.”

    So how can someone with COPD stop this downward spiral? ACSM points to randomized controlled trials that have found that people with COPD who participated in prescribed aerobic and resistance training exercises reported physiological and psychological benefits. Benefits of exercise include enhanced physical capacity, lower anxiety about breathlessness, more independence in doing daily activities, reduced fatigue and a better quality of life. ACSM also notes that the gain in fitness and confidence that comes with an exercise program actually reverses the downward spiral of deconditioning that is often seen with COPD. Additionally, other research has found that people with COPD who exercise may perform better verbally on assessments. These results suggest that exercise actually may help enhance cognitive function in people with COPD.

    Before starting an exercise program, ACSM recommends that people with COPD have a medically monitored exercise evaluation since they may have co-existing cardiovascular issues, such as high blood pressure. The group also strongly suggests that medical supervision be available at the beginning of the exercise program so that guidance can be given to the person with COPD about training intensity, duration and frequency.

  • ACSM notes that moderate exercise done on a daily basis has been shown to decrease the sensation of breathlessness for people with COPD while providing the greatest improvements in functional capacity. The group suggests that most people with COPD should aim for a minimum of 15 minutes of moderate physical activity at least three days per week. Exercises should include aerobic training for a total of 20-30 minutes as well as strength training for the major muscle groups in the lower portion of the body. ACSM also recommends endurance and strength training for the upper body.  ACSM also notes that education on different breathing strategies can help people with COPD deal with periods of breathlessness and, thus, lower their anxiety about exercising. People with COPD also should be educated on the use and timing of prescribed medications while exercising.

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    Obviously, a person with COPD may have difficulty breathing when exercising. So what should they do? “Since breathlessness is usually a transient symptom during exercise, patients should slow down rather than stop suddenly,” ACSM states. “However, if the labored breathing persists, then stop and rest.” However, the person with COPD should stop exercising if he or she experiences other warning signals, including: nausea, lightheadedness; dizziness, headache or pressure or pain in the chest, neck, arm and jaw.

    Primary Sources for This Sharepost:

    American College of Sports Medicine. (2012). Exercise for persons with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

    National Heart Lung and Blood Institute. (2012). What is COPD?

Published On: September 18, 2012