Portland Marathon 2014, FEV1 was 30%
Portland Marathon 2008, FEV1 was 40% at the time.
Everyone knows how important daily exercise is for maintaining good health, but I believe this is even more true when you suffer from a chronic breathing disorder such as asthma or COPD. And I don’t make that claim lightly. For 10 years now, Ive demonstrated through my own example, what a positive impact aerobic exercise can have on one’s longevity and overall quality of life.

If you look at the severity of my asthma and the sheer number of debilitating exacerbations I’ve have endured over the years, there’s really no other explanation as to why Im still here, let alone functioning at near normal levels most of the time. Sure, I have access to affordable medications and healthcare, but other than that Im no different than millions of other severe asthmatics in the way I treat my disease, except that I include exercise as part of my daily treatment plan,even during times when it’s difficult for me to breath… which is most of the time.

I know for a lot of people that last sentence can be a hard pill to swallow, especially for those who get short breath just thinking about exerting themselves more then they have to, but that’s exactly what you need to do. Lets be honest here, severe asthma and/or COPD are diseases that usually get worse over time leaving you increasingly breathless. So if you’re waiting for your breathing to improve to the point where you think you can better tolerate exercise, chances are you’ll never even start. The cruel irony with lung disease is that if you dont exercise, your breathlessness will only get worse.

As a person with breathing problems, the first thing you’ll probably need to do is conquer your fear of breathlessness or activities that you perceive will make your breathing worse. The only way to do that is by testing the waters and facing it head on to see what happens. Let’s take walking for example. You wanna start off slow and set a reasonable distance for yourself, even a few hundreds yards is better than nothing. Dont forget to purse-lip breath if you need to. After you finish, assess how things went and tweak as necessary. Repeat this process until you get the hang of it and then gradually increase your distance. Consistency is key here. Try to do at least 20 minutes of walking per day ( or whatever exercise you pick) at least 5 days per week. The more you do this, the more you’ll learn what works for you and what doesn’t. You’ll learn what your body can and cannot handle, and you’ll be less intimated by your dyspnea. Over time you’ll build endurance, which not only makes exercising easier, but also lessens anxiety and toughens you up so that you’re able to recover from flare ups (exacerbations) faster.

A decade ago when I started on this journey I did the very same thing. I set some easy exercise goals for myself, basically to get from point A to point B by walking as fast as I could without throwing myself into bronchospasm. For the first few walks I plotted a course to and from the neighborhood grocery store, which is just over a mile in total. Once I found that I could handle it without too many problems, I turned that walk to the grocery store into a daily routine gradually extending the distance. In just a few months that 1 mile walk turned into a daily 5 mile walk. A year later I was doing 10 to 20 mile training walks in preparation for my first marathon. Im not saying that everyone will be able to do marathons, but you will definitely get better at whatever activity you’ve chosen.

As far as the actual breathing goes, like most of us, I have good and bad breathing days. Some days Im so short of breath I can’t walk at all, but that rarely happens. Before starting each walk I pre-neb, check my PFs, O2 sats and HRs. Then during the walk, if my breathing gets worse, I take a couple hits off my inhaler and repeat the peak flow and o2 sat tests to see if they reflect the way I actually feel. Surprisingly, 9 out of 10 times they don’t. It took me awhile to finally figure out that not all breathlessness is created equal. This is different for everyone, but lot of the breathlessness I experience when Im exerting myself is caused by air-trapping and not actual bronchospasm. And while air-trapping can be very uncomfortable and sometimes scary, it’s generally not life-threatening. It’s just what happens when you exert yourself with chronically obstructed airways. For me( and most asthmatics,) the potentially dangerous stuff occurs when my airways start spasming or narrowing from whatever trigger. Learning to recognize the difference of of how each of these types of breatlessness feels, made me less apprehensive about my breathing and gave me the confidence to push myself harder without fear of my lungs totally clamping shut. Of course you have to use common sense too. If you have O2 dependent COPD or Emphysema and you start getting light headed or your fingertips starting blue while your exercising, then it’s definitely time to stop and rest or crank up the O2. Again, it’s all about learning how your body and lungs reacts to the activity you’re doing and then adapting.

So that’s my exercise speech. Easier said then done I know, but at least you now know someone with horrible lung function who’s actually been through the process and has reaped many of the benefits. My advise is that whether it be a Pulmonary rehab class, a better breathers club, a respiratory support group, or even experimenting on your own, that you need to start taking those small steps now before your lung function gets any worse. Talk to your doctor and make a plan. If walking isn’t your thing, perhaps swimming or biking or even Yoga. I know many people with extremely severe respiratory conditions who excel in all kinds of sports. If you’re confined to a wheelchair, make it your legs. If you require supplemental Oxygen, find a way to take it along with you. Do whatever it takes to become mobile and get your heart pumping. You’ll find that after a while you’re capable of doing a lot more than you ever thought.Once you get into the swing of things, continue to push and challenge yourself. Mix things up a little so that you dont get bored. Maybe bring your favorite music along. Make exercise a part of your NEW life. You dont have to train for marathons, just find a sports activity that works for you and stick with it…I promise you wont regret it. Exercise like your life depends on it, because for many people with lung disease… it does.

On a personal note, with my declining lung function this past year, I can no longer walk marathons, but I still get out there 6 days a week and walk for 30 to 60 mins. I use that time, not only to get my exercise in, but also to listen to new music that I want to learn (another hobby of mine). And just to clear things up, I don’t exercise because I love it, I was never an a natural born athlete. I exercise because I have to. It’s like any other chore or responsibility, but fortunately it’s a chore I usually look forward to.

Good luck, and if you have any questions drop me a line.

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1 thought on “Exercise like your life depends on it

  1. “Then during the walk, if my breathing gets worse, I take a couple hits off my inhaler and repeat the peak flow and o2 sat tests to see if they reflect the way I actually feel. Surprisingly, 9 out of 10 times they don’t. ”

    This is very helpful and encouraging. I have noticed the same with my VCD. Also, when you are under the mind-altering affects of steroids, objective measures are always best. I am going to start taking my peak flow meter with me when I exercise, so I don’t get scared. Thanks.

    By the way, do you use the same reasoning when you have an infection (maybe that is always) or do you rest then?

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