If you suffer from a respiratory disease, exercise can make some symptoms worse. But rather than avoiding exercise completely, it can actually be beneficial – as long as you make appropriate exercise choices.
One of the common symptoms of respiratory conditions, such as asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and recurring bronchitis, is shortness of breath and wheezing. It can be unpleasant and scary to feel unable to breathe, so it’s not surprising people feel put off by doing activities or exercise that can seemingly bring on these symptoms.
“People with respiratory conditions may be fearful of physical activity, because it heightens the feeling of breathlessness,” explains Dr Alasdair R Wright, GP and sports medicine doctor.
“But actually, lack of exercise is more likely to lead to the constant feeling of breathlessness and exhaustion, through muscle weakness, reduced energy levels and often associated weight gain. This negative cycle causes people to become more breathless with time.”
Regular activity and exercise helps use important muscles involved in breathing, such as the chest wall and diaphragm. They can also help improve your breathing capacity, energy levels and your overall feeling of well-being.
Before you start exercising
Before you start a new exercise programme, check with your doctor, respiratory nurse or physiotherapist to ensure it’s safe for you to exercise. In most cases, exercise will be encouraged but, if you have severe respiratory disease, you may need to exercise under supervision.
Breaking exercise into small sessions can help ease you into it. Try 10 minute sessions to start with, then gradually build it up to at least 30 minutes per day. Remember that every form of activity where you’re moving around is beneficial for your health, so be active as much as possible in your daily life.
Respiratory-friendly exercise ideas
If you’re unsure what types of exercise you should be doing, Dr Wright has a great range of respiratory-friendly exercise ideas for you to try.
Practise slow controlled breathing
This will help teach the muscles in your chest wall and diaphragm to work correctly. Breathe in deeply and slowly through your nose, then exhale slowly through pursed lips. Repeat 10 times.
Aim to walk a set distance each time. Walking on a treadmill may be useful, as holding onto hand rails can support your upper body and aid breathing.
Cycle on an exercise bike
Use a light resistance option to allow your legs to freely turn the pedals. Focus on increasing pedal speed, rather than resistance.
Do yoga or Pilates
Both are good for helping control core muscle strength and other muscles involved in breathing - plus they involve beneficial breathing exercises.
It’s fun, great exercise and provides a feel-good factor.
The warm environment can be good for asthmatics and the water gently supports your body whilst exercising.
Respiratory exercise tips
Here are some more tips to help you get the best results from exercise.
- When you exercise, aim to get at least moderately out of breath.
- Aim to exercise four or five days per week, for at least 30 minutes.
- A pulse oximeter – a device worn on the fingers which tells you how much oxygen is in your blood – may be useful in monitoring the effect that exercise has on your breathing and your progress.
- You could also monitor your progress by using a simple breathlessness scale of 1 to 10, where 1 is easy and 10 is extreme.
- Vary your exercise choices to boost motivation and exercise a wide range of muscles.
- Don’t be disheartened if you don’t have immediate benefits. It can take two to three months for the beneficial effects on your breathing to become apparent.
What not to do...
Even if your new-found exercise is significantly helping your respiratory condition, don’t ever stop any medication unless a doctor has advised you to.
Avoid exercising in conditions that could affect your respiratory condition. For example, if you have asthma and cold air or pollen can trigger it, focus on indoor gym exercise or classes away from the triggers.
If your breathing becomes worse, or you’re worried about the effect that certain exercises could have on your health condition, speak to your doctor.