For those living with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), exercise can be a daunting thought. Some people may even fear the idea, as it is oftentimes a very difficult challenge. COPD makes even simple physical activities like “a short walk or climbing the stairs exhausting, but research shows that exercise can “improve COPD patients’ physical and emotional well-being, while inactivity can worsen their condition.”
“As a person’s symptoms become more severe, they’ll avoid any kind of activity that will cause breathing distress,” Randolph Lipchik, MD, a pulmonologist at Froedtert Hospital and the Medical College of Wisconsin in Milwaukee. “This leads to a spiral of slowly becoming more and more deconditioned, and unable to do even basic physical activity.” Additionally, the American College of Sports Medicine warns that if COPD patients choose to remain inactive, their heart function and muscle mass can decline.
When people suffer from the shortness of breath and lack of energy associated with COPD, they tend to give up activities they used to enjoy as well as social interaction, leading to an estimated 40 percent of patients suffering from depression. Researchers recommend checking with a doctor before beginning any kind of exercise program as they may want to “monitor oxygen levels and heart rate, and suggest working with a therapist to identify the right exercises for you.”
“Sometimes [patients] need reassurance that they’re okay to do something that’s not a marathon,” says Ashley Henderson, MD, director of the pulmonary diseases and critical care medicine fellowship program at University of North Carolina School of Medicine.
Recommended exercises include low-impact aerobic movements such as “walking, riding a stationary bike, and swimming use large muscle groups and can help improve breathing. Lipchik adds that “mild strength training, such as lifting light weights, can prevent muscles from weakening. But don’t overdo it”, he says.