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Exercise and COPD

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How to exercise when you feel like you can’t breathe

Posted by Temple Lung Center

Rick Medina, exercise physiologist, at the Temple Lung Center’s Pulmonary Rehabilitation Program.

If you have COPD, you may be hesitant to exercise for fear of becoming breathless. But exercise can benefit those with COPD, as it improves muscle strength, endurance, and exercise tolerance which ultimately, helps you breathe easier.

Temple exercise physiologist, Rick Medina, works with patients who have COPD through the Temple Lung Center’s Pulmonary Rehabilitation Program. We talked to him about the benefits of exercise and also learned some helpful tips on what types of exercises are best for those with COPD.

What are the benefits of exercise for people with COPD, especially those fearful of becoming breathless?

I’ve met a lot of people with COPD who are afraid to exercise because they think it will make them even more breathless. But it’s quite the opposite. Even just a small amount of movement every day can improve the heart and lung's ability to work more efficiently in moving oxygen through the body. When you combine aerobic and weight-bearing/resistance exercises, it helps strengthen your muscles and increase your ability to do everyday activities for longer periods of time with less difficulty. Although there is no cure for COPD, with exercise and determination, these symptoms will become less taxing, making everyday activities easier.

What should someone with COPD consider before beginning an exercise program?

Anytime I meet someone with COPD or a lung disorder who wants to start an exercise program, I tell them to talk to their doctor about pulmonary rehab. After discussing this treatment, they can meet with a team of healthcare professionals who will evaluate them to see what type of exercise prescription is right for their needs. Many people that have a lung disorder are on supplemental oxygen and get out of breath almost immediately with very little movement. For these patients, I would recommend finding a pulmonary rehab program so a rehab specialist can teach you how your lungs work, how the disease affects your lungs, and what type of exercises are best for you.

If they’re not able to go to Pulmonary Rehab or even to a gym, the next best thing is to try and become more active, but not push too hard. It takes education and practice to understand the limits of what one can and should do.

What types of exercises do you recommend for people with COPD?

There are three modes of exercises I recommend:

  1. Endurance/Aerobic
  2. Resistance/Strength
  3. Flexibility training

When it comes to exercising with COPD, the ultimate goal is learning how to manage your breathing while moving. You want to be able to get dressed and do housework and have the energy to go out and do things such as visiting friends and family. Exercise will help with that.

Targeting the muscle groups we use for walking and carrying things such as your legs and upper body is recommended.

Strengthen your Lungs with Aerobic/Endurance Training

Aerobics is sometimes thought of as an outdated term, but it just means “with air.” It involves moving continuously for approximately 10-20 min at a time – like taking a walk for example. This forces your heart and lungs to work a little harder than usual thus creating a greater exercise tolerance.

If you get breathless walking outside or on a treadmill, try walking a few steps around your home every day. Movement is so important. With perseverance, you may get to where you’re walking outside 3-5 times a week. Taking a bike ride, swimming, or even marching in place can also help you get that aerobic benefit.

Strengthen your Muscles with Resistance/Strength Training

Weight-bearing or resistance training builds muscle. It also helps with balance and stability for preventing falls. We target specific muscle groups used for daily functional living. In pulmonary rehab we work with weights, resistance bands and other equipment that you typically see in a gym. We also talk about modifications people can do at home if they don’t have equipment.

Stretching and Flexibility Training

Stretching is also important. It increases your range of motion and promotes blood flow and oxygen to your joints. It also helps with stiffening of the body and cramping.

Is nutrition a consideration?

Yes. Eating a variety of healthy and nutritious foods will fuel your body, giving you the energy you need for daily movements and exercise. Another service we offer in pulmonary rehab is providing our patients with a variety of resources about the best food choices they can make, and referring them to our hospital dieticians for additional support. Whether you need to lose weight or gain weight, maintaining a healthy weight will also contribute to easier breathing.

What if you are on oxygen? Can you still exercise?

If you are prescribed supplemental oxygen by your physician, you will exercise with your oxygen. Your flow rate will likely be at a higher rate than you use while resting. Your physician and the rehab team will adjust your liter flow as needed.

Are there times when you should not exercise with COPD?

It’s so important to take your own safety into consideration when you exercise – even more so if you have COPD. If you’re extremely out of breath or just not feeling well, it’s okay to take it easy and/or stop if needed. Don’t push yourself if something doesn’t feel right. When in doubt, take a break or call your doctor.

How does pulmonary rehab fit into an overall COPD care plan?

Pulmonary rehab is just one part of the puzzle when it comes to COPD. We’re part of a larger multidisciplinary program here at Temple that includes an entire team of people who are experts at diagnosing, treating, and managing COPD. Our role is to help patients make positive changes that help them live with their best quality of life. We are fully committed to patient care. Before a patient even walks in the door for the first time, we go over every aspect of their health history so we understand what we’re working with. It’s very rewarding and a pleasure to help people understand what they’re capable of.

Any last words of advice about exercise for people with COPD?

I think it’s important to be self-aware. Learn as much as you can about COPD. The more you know about this disease, the more you will be able to manage it.

Remember, the goal is to help you breathe better, gain and maintain strength, move around with confidence; and to give you the best quality of life you deserve.

Learn more about exercise and COPD. Schedule an appointment with a pulmonary rehab specialist.

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