Have COPD? Exercise Helps Keep You Out of the Hospital

Regular activity cuts down on symptoms and flare-ups
Have COPD? Exercise Helps Keep You Out of the Hospital

Are you living with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)? Then you know a flare-up can land you in the emergency room.

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But you can take steps — literally — to avoid that trip by adding regular exercise to your weekly routine.

COPD is a family of chronic, progressive lung diseases that includes chronic bronchitis and emphysema. The symptoms of COPD include shortness of breath, chronic cough, fatigue, wheezing and chest tightness.

These symptoms can make exercise a challenge. But whether your COPD is mild, moderate or severe, regular exercise will not only ease your symptoms. It will also boost your quality of life, says pulmonologist Kathrin Nicolacakis, MD.

Benefits for mild COPD

For mild COPD, Dr. Nicolacakis recommends a light cardio program, such as walking or swimming. Try to work up to 30 minutes a day, five times a week. This benefits you in three ways:

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  1. Your lungs won’t have to work as hard. Regular exercise can lower your resting heart rate and blood pressure, so your body can use oxygen more efficiently.
  2. You’ll be less susceptible to flare-ups. Participating in cardio and strength training will help strengthen your chest muscles and improve your breathing.
  3. You may lose weight. The less you weigh, the easier it is for your lungs to do their job.

Benefits for moderate to severe COPD

If your COPD is moderate or severe, a pulmonary rehabilitation program can be a life-changer, says Dr. Nicolacakis. “The hardest part of my job is convincing people to go to pulmonary rehabilitation,” she says. “But I’ve never had anybody who went to rehab who didn’t love it.”

An expert team helps get you up to speed with exercise. A respiratory therapist trained in exercise physiology first tests your exercise capacity. Then the team creates a program tailored to your needs.

Most pulmonary rehabilitation programs focus on breathing exercises, cardio exercise and resistance training. Typically, you participate in three weekly sessions for eight to 10 weeks. Once you complete the program, your exercise capacity is reassessed. The team then helps you develop a year-long exercise plan to sustain your progress.

Dr. Nicolacakis says the benefits of completing a pulmonary rehabilitation program are many and lasting:

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  • Fewer exacerbations and flare-ups
  • Fewer visits to the ER or urgent care
  • A better quality of life
  • Less anxiety
  • Decreased shortness of breath

Questionnaires from patients completing pulmonary rehabilitation programs attest to their improved quality of life. “Patients report feeling better at the end of the program. They also have fewer hospitalizations than patients who don’t complete rehabilitation,” says Dr. Nicolacakis.

If you’re not a candidate for pulmonary rehabilitation, regular exercise such as walking will still benefit you, she says.

Talk to your doctor, then give it a try

If you’re interested in pulmonary rehabilitation, ask your doctor to refer you to a program that follows American Heart Association guidelines. Choose either a COPD program or one that is staffed by people experienced in COPD, says Dr. Nicolacakis.

Exercise can seem daunting, but it can make living with COPD much easier. “You may think you’re not up it — but you won’t regret it,” she says.

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