If you’ve spent much time reading my blog, you’ve probably figured out that Im a huge promoter of daily exercise for people with lung disease. My favorite fitness activity of course, is distance walking. Aerobic exercise such as walking, uses large muscle groups to move at a steady, rhythmic pace. It’s an excellent way to diminish stress, works out your heart and lungs, and improves overall endurance. This helps your body use oxygen more efficiently and, with time, can improve your breathing. However, in addition to aerobic exercise, when you have lung disease you really need to do upper body strengthening exercises as well…something which a lot us don’t do, myself included.
In an attempt to conserve energy and breath, people with chronic lung problems who are constantly short of breath, are generally less mobile and don’t use their upper body muscles as much as healthy people. Over time those muscle groups become deconditioned and gradually weaker. Strengthening the upper body muscles, helps you strengthen your breathing muscles, get more oxygen in, and breathe with less effort.
Completing 9 full marathon and 12 half marathon walks in just the past 10 years is quite an accomplishment for someone with severe lung disease, but I’ll be the first to admit that I totally slacked off when it came to incorporating upper body workouts into my training regimen. Except for a 6 month period that I crossed trained in a gym for my 2nd Boston marathon back in 2010, I pretty much neglected my core and upper torso muscles. Most people know the importance of cross training when training for a marathon, but it’s doubly important when you have chronic lung disease. I guess at time I figured my body was strong enough and that adding weight lifting to my workouts would just adding to my breathlessness. Boy, I was wrong. Looking back at my own health records (some of which are on this blog), it turns out that since I quit training for marathons back in 2014, my hospital admissions for severe asthma actually doubled. Ironically, the reason I quit doing training for races or other physical activities is because my breathing was getting more difficult. Is this escalation of bad exacerbations a result of exercising less, or is it purely coincidence? Is my disease getting worse despite exercise? To be honest, I don’t really know the answer. The only thing I know is that Im getting sicker more often now.
Even though I dont do marathons anymore, I do continue to walk everyday. As a result my legs are still incredible strong and toned, but my arm muscles are starting to show signs of atrophy and I can barely lift my own weight when I do pull ups. One of the transplant doctors who came to see me while I was on ventilator a couple weeks ago, noted that my arm and chest muscles appeared weak and that my abdominal muscles were very flaccid. So much in fact, that he recommended I be evaluated by a neurologist before continuing with the other pre-transplant tests.
The take away from all these observations, is that as a person with severe lung disease and facing potential lung transplant in the future, I need to get on the ball and start strengthening those upper body muscles.
Well, Im happy to say that of this writing Ive taken the first step. Ive started doing some basic core exercises for my stomach as well as some resistance and strength training for my arms and shoulder muscles. I do a few sets of each before and after my daily walks. Eventually I may even attend some medically supervised pulmonary rehab classes to learn proper breathing technique and to see what the type of workout they recommend for someone with my type of lung disease and current level of fitness.
So, if you’re in a similar situation, continue with your aerobic exercises, but make sure you workout those upper body muscles as well. It’s so important!