a pair of lungs lifting weights and a heart doing yoga

Focus on Heart and Lung Fitness to Reduce Your COPD Risk

COPD is generally considered to be a progressive, chronic disease of the lungs. There is no known cure, although medication and lifestyle changes can contribute to halting lung damage and slowing the progression. Smoking is the most common risk factor, but non-smokers can also develop COPD. The root cause in those cases is often environmental exposure to toxins or a genetic factor known as alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency (AAT for short).1

Medical experts emphasize that it is possible to prevent COPD in many cases. If you smoke, quitting is the most positive thing you can do to avoid it.1 However, a recent long-term study out of Denmark suggests that there are other steps people can take to significantly reduce their risk for COPD.2 The catch is that these steps likely need to begin in middle age. COPD often does not rear its ugly head until age 60 or older. So, it might already be too late to prevent it using this approach. However, it can still be possible to improve health outcomes after a COPD diagnosis.

Details of the study

The results of the Danish study were published in the clinical journal, Thorax.2 Here are some of the details of this study:

  • Participants included 4,730 middle-aged men (who were age 40-59 at the start of the study)
  • Study continued for 46 years (began in 1970)
  • Heart and lung fitness was measured via VO2 max (maximum amount of oxygen a person can use during intense exercise)
  • Participants were separated into 3 groups, based on fitness: low, normal and high
  • Age, body mass index, self-reported physical activity, smoking status, alcohol consumption, arterial hypertension, diabetes, and socioeconomic status were all taken into account

Results of the study

Overall, the results of this study suggested that, at least in men, the better your heart and lung fitness, the better your chances of not developing - or dying from - COPD. Specifically, this is what they found:

  • Men who had "normal" heart and lung fitness were 21% less likely to develop COPD than those with only low fitness.
  • Men who had high fitness levels were 31% less likely to develop COPD.
  • Death from COPD was 35% less likely in the normal fitness group.
  • Death from COPD was a whopping 62% less likely in the high fitness group.

The scientists wondered if people who were already disposed to develop COPD might have been more likely to have low levels of heart and lung fitness. However, upon examining the data closely, they did not find this to be true. They did find, however, that there was a link between low fitness and the following factors:

  • Lower levels of physical activity (as self-reported)
  • Higher body mass index
  • Higher alcohol intake
  • Lower socioeconomic status
  • Diabetes mellitus and high blood pressure

What does this mean for you?

If you've already been diagnosed with COPD, then obviously working on your heart and lung fitness is not going to change that. But, it might change what happens from this point on, at least to some extent.

The researchers emphasized, “In individuals at risk of developing COPD, fitness-enhancing physical activity should be encouraged not only to reduce [difficulty breathing], but also to delay development, progression, and death from COPD.” 2

In other words, fitness-enhancing physical activity can help you feel better and delay some of the negative effects of COPD.

Feeling better with COPD

If you're simply worried about developing COPD in the future, because you are a smoker or have other risk factors, this is a great time to talk with your doctor about starting a new exercise program. Once you get the clearance to do so, finding a routine or program that's right for you can help you get more fit and enjoy all kinds of health benefits. You'll feel and look better overall. All the better if that also helps you avoid having COPD down the line.

If you already have COPD, working to improve your heart and lung fitness can still have many benefits. Again, you'll feel and look better, but it is important to get your doctor's OK on any exercise program. In the future, I'll be posting some short "how-to" and "tips" videos on how to get started with safe and effective exercise when you have COPD. Meanwhile, implementing a walking program, even if it's just inside your home for a few minutes at a time, can reap quick benefits.

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This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The COPD.net team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.

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