Why Exercise Is So Important When You Have COPD

Staying active when you have COPD is a bit of double-edged sword. Keeping your body moving has many real health benefits, but staying active when your airways don’t work well can be challenging.  Still, the efforts you make will be worth it!

Benefits of Exercise

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), these are a few of the benefits of physical activity:

  • Keeping your weight in a healthy range
  • Lessening your risk for other health conditions, such as type 2 diabetes, heart disease & cancer
  • Strengthening your bones and muscles
  • Boosting your mood
  • Helping with the strength and endurance you need to carry out your activities of daily living
  • Reducing your risk of falls
  • Improving your chances of living longer

And, for people who have COPD, regular activity can also help your lungs and airways to expand and work better for a longer period of time.

Tips for Getting/Staying Active with COPD

However, beginning an exercise program or resuming one after a diagnosis of COPD is not as easy as it sounds. So here are some tips to prevent injury and frustration, especially in the early stages.

Start out slowly & increase gradually. You won’t know how much you can do until you try. Test the waters a little at a time until you learn how your body (and your breathing) responds. Over time, you can push yourself a little more at a time to increase your activity tolerance and endurance. For example, starting out, you might walk to the end of the driveway and back. Gradually, you can walk a bit further each week until perhaps you are able to walk around the block.

If exercise is totally new to you, then definitely discuss with your doctor how much and what type of activity to start with.

Alternate periods of activity with periods of rest. While someone who doesn’t suffer with COPD may decide to exercise 30 minutes a day, that kind of commitment might not be possible for you. You may need to break periods of activity up with rest. So, for example, you might exercise for 10 minutes, sit down and rest for 5 minutes, then exercise for another 10 minutes… and so on.

Also, be active during the times of day when you have the most energy.

The key is to listen to your body and allow yourself to fully recover in between active times. You don’t want to overdo it.

Stick with it and be consistent. There may be times when being active leaves you sore and/or fatigued. That’s normal. As long as you allow yourself enough rest time during and after activity, it’s OK to keep being active everyday. In fact when you are consistent, you will find that your endurance improves and that you actually begin to look forward to being active.

Scheduling your activity on a calendar or setting an alarm can help you remember to do it and to stay on track over time.

Find something you enjoy doing. If you enjoy an activity, you’re much more likely to keep going it over the long run. Exercise shouldn’t be a grind. If it is, motivation may evaporate. It isn’t necessary to go to a gym or even to do formal exercise in order to reap the benefits of being active.

Here are a few activities that can be especially beneficial for people who have COPD:

  • Water exercise or swimming
  • Gentle yoga
  • Walking, especially indoors where air quality tends to be better controlled
  • Gardening
  • Stationary biking
  • Tai chi
  • Dancing

Once you find an activity you can stick with, try to do it for 30 minutes a day (not necessarily all at once), 3 to 5 days a week.

Adopt the buddy system. Having an exercise partner can help you stay motivated. First of all, it’s usually more fun to exercise with a friend or family member than it is to do it alone. Second, knowing that you’re counting on each other can help you both stay on track.

You can invite friends to exercise with you or you might even join a club at your local Y, or perhaps a walking club at your local mall.  Or, maybe you’ll enjoy joining social activities that have a component of exercise, such as a dance club.

Avoid injury. No matter what kind of activity you do, it’s important to warm up before and cool down after. Stretching and slow movements are the key during these times. Having the proper gear also matters. For example, having shoes that fit well and that support your feet and ankles can help prevent injury when walking or dancing. If you’re exercising outdoors, dressing for the weather helps you stay comfortable and safe.

Ask your health care provider about the possibility of a pulmonary rehabilitation program. Pulmonary rehab is greatly underused in people with COPD, but can be extremely beneficial. This type of program generally includes education, planning for exercise, optimizing treatment and support.

In Summary

Staying active within the limitations of your disease can help both your physical and mental well-being. It’s not always easy, but it is definitely worth the effort!

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