​The power of exercise for people with asthma and COPD

By Russell Winwood COPD Athlete · 6 May 2015

There's no disputing that the health benefits for people undertaking regular exercise are significant, but what makes it extra important for people with lung conditions like ours? If dedicating 10% of your waking hours to exercise meant the other 90% would be significantly better, would you do it?

Well, the most important tool for anyone undertaking exercise is their respiratory system –the fuelling system to the rest of our body! Unfortunately for people with asthma and COPD, it's a weak system but we can still strengthen what capacity we do have.

Why exercise?

I've been asked many times how I can do triathlon and Ironman events with less than 30% lung function. My answer: I use 100% of my 30%! In other words, exercise strengthens our muscles and the stronger our muscles, the less effort we use to breath and the less breathless we become 

When I was diagnosed with COPD in 2011, my specialist told me it was likely at some stage in the future I'd need a double lung transplant. Rather than succumb to that option I chose to keep the lungs I have for as long as possible and figured the best way to do that is by strengthening my respiratory system – building my exercise capacity was how I could achieve that. Three years on and my lung function has not deteriorated and my general wellbeing has significantly improved.

And if you can’t take my word for it, know that the evidence for the benefits of exercise for people with conditions like ours is strong: plenty of research has confirmed this. 

Start today

If this post is motivating you to make a change, then do something straight away rather than just thinking “that sounds like a good idea, I will start next week”.

Sit down, determine how much time you can devote each day and write a plan. Your exercise plan should be written in consultation with your exercise instructor and your respiratory specialist. Together they can do a series of tests to determine your baseline exercise capacity.  You may not be able to see a respiratory specialist as quick as you’d like but you can make other changes in your life, such as your diet or talking to a qym or fitness instructor or personal trainer about starting some simple stretching exercises to get you started.

Stay safe

Of course, even when you’re exercising and improving your health, the risks don’t go away. When exercising, make sure not only that your medications are close by, but you have an action plan in case you have a flare up.

Also stay wary of your triggers, including dust, pollen, pollution, other irritants like chlorine and of course colds or flus – as these might be causing a flare-up you could easily blame on the exercise itself. Adjust your plan if these triggers are getting in the way.

Sustainability and avoiding the drop out

It can be easy to find the motivation to start, but many people with asthma or COPD who start exercise often find it too difficult to keep going and dropout.

Feeling breathless can trigger anxiety attacks and make us question whether what we’re doing is really helping. What we have to realise is that we are working our muscles and exerting ourselves, so being short of breath is normal in that situation.

Experience has taught me that it’s all about starting at a pace that you can cope with. Many people set too high an expectation, only to be frustrated that they aren't getting the results they wanted in the time they expected. It’s a similar story to many who turn up at the gym for the first time at the end of winter and tell their instructor that they want to have a perfect body by summer.

The single most important rule of planning your exercise program is sustainability. Change takes time, commitment and patience, but if we continue to burn ourselves out with unrealistic expectations, eventually we just give up.

Stay strong, stay committed, feel better

Success is guaranteed when failure is not an option. In the Ironman events I’ve completed so far the most important tool I’ve had in training and on race day is my mind.

Like anything, when it comes down to it, the only that will power your success is you. So get on with it and good luck!

Guest writer Russell Winwood
COPD Athlete