COPD: Exercise is Medicine

Senior Couple Cycling In Park

What is COPD?

COPD stands for Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease. COPD is a preventable and treatable lung condition1. It is the world’s fourth leading cause of death and affects millions of people each year1. People living with COPD experience symptoms such as breathlessness, cough and phlegm production on a daily basis1.  

What COPD does to the lungs

COPD causes changes to the airways and lungs that lead to persistent airflow limitation, meaning that it is hard for a person living with COPD to blow air out of their lungs. These changes may be caused by inflammation or mucus in the airways (termed ‘Chronic Bronchitis’)1, damage to the sacs in the lungs, called alveoli, that allow for gas exchange (termed ‘Emphysema’)1, or a combination of both. Other changes may be present in the airways in lungs of people living with COPD, so one person’s experience of the condition may be very different compared to the next! 

What causes COPD?

The most common risk factor that people think of is cigarette smoking. However, many people have COPD and have never smoked, and less than 50% of people who smoke end up developing the condition1. While cigarette smoke remains the most studied risk factor, there are other possible causes of COPD as well. These may include:

  1. Conditions, complications, and/or lung infections during gestation, birth, childhood or adolescence that could affect lung growth1 
  2. History of asthma
  3. Environmental exposures (such as air pollution)1 
  4. Occupational exposures (such as chemicals, dusts, fumes)1 
  5. Genetics1 

Note that the above risk factors do NOT guarantee the development of COPD, but have been identified as possible risk factors for the condition.

Is exercise safe for people living with COPD?

Yes! Exercise is safe for people with COPD. If you have other health conditions (e.g., heart conditions), you should seek advice from your health care professional before starting a new exercise program. Even if you have other health conditions, with the right assessment, guidance, and supervision, exercise can be safely adapted to your needs and abilities2,3.

Which exercise program is safe for people living with COPD?

In fact, pulmonary rehabilitation (PR), a comprehensive program that includes exercise and lifestyle education components, has shown to be effective at improving symptoms, physical fitness, and overall well-being3,4 for all people living with COPD. Pulmonary rehabilitation can be delivered in many different ways, but the most common is in-person, in a hospital outpatient setting5. Unfortunately, for various reasons, many Canadians who could benefit from pulmonary rehab do not have access to it5. In these cases, seeking help from an exercise professional is an excellent alternative! Exercise physiologists and kinesiologists trained to work with clients with COPD can help you develop good exercise habits and help you feel at ease while being physically active.

How will exercise help me?

While exercise will not directly improve your lung function, it will improve how efficient your body is at using oxygen, and it will also increase your muscle strength4. Through these changes, you will be able to do more while feeling less breathless and less fatigued, and therefore improve your quality of life! 

Does exercise replace medication?

Keep in mind that exercise doesn’t replace medication or inhalers that your lung specialist has prescribed you. In fact, research has shown that when an individual with COPD is optimally treated and participates in an exercise program, both will work synergistically to have a greater positive impact on his/her life6.

What type of exercise is best for me?

All physical activity has benefits for people with COPD, whether this is walking your dog, gardening, doing more around the house or going for a bike ride. If you don’t know where to start, see your lung doctor and discuss local programs that he/she may know of.

What's the next step?

Joining a supervised exercise program or putting yourself in contact with an exercise professional for one-on-one sessions can really help increase your confidence with different types of exercise and put you on the right track. Doing so is also a way to meet other people who want to become active! Ultimately, the goal of any exercise program is to develop the confidence and skills you need to remain autonomous and continue carrying out your daily tasks as you want to! 

About the author

Lauren is an accredited kinesiologist with the Fédération des kinésiologues du Québec (FKQ). She holds a B.Sc.H. in Kinesiology and a M.Sc. in Exercise Physiology, both from McGill University. She has 4 years of experience in the healthcare setting coordinating clinical trials in chronic respiratory conditions, namely COPD and idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis (IPF). Currently, Lauren is a first-year M.D., C.M. candidate at McGill University’s Faculty of Medicine.

Lauren Tracey