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Shedding the light on Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease..... and exercise

A woman smoking in an image, and a blog post on chronic obstructive pulmonary disease by specialist exercise instructor, Graham Kavanagh in York

COPD or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease is an irreversible health condition..... but also a health condition where an individual can benefit from exercise. If COPD is irreversible then what is the point of exercise?

With many health conditions, exercise provides the tools to "prevent" worsening symptoms even if the condition cannot be completely eradicated. Other words effective management to improve quality of life. At Graham Fit Personal Training there are various health conditions I cover and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease is one of them.

Shortness of breath, wheezing and tightness of the chest are common, due to the combination of bronchitis and emphysema. Bronchitis means inflammation of the bronchi and results in coughing.

The air sacs in the lungs lose their elasticity and known as emphysema. This causes issues, narrowing airways and shortness of breath meaning the lungs are struggling to function as they should.


Environmental conditions such as dust, pollutants and chemicals can all have a part in the onset of COPD. Smoking however is the MAJOR risk factor.


To make sense of how exercise can help, we have to look at the effect of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease on a person. An individual living with COPD typically exerts more energy to maintain limited breathing function.

This means there is limited oxygen available for working muscles. Functional ability is therefore likely to be affected, simply due to the knock on effect of limiting oxygen to muscle.

The purpose of exercise when there is no cure is the management of the condition to maintain function and ability. The crucial point is to maintain/improve activities of daily living and prevent worsening. Maintenance is progress and a positive step forward as are applying strategies..... by way of increasing daily activities.

Exercise maximises what available lung function is left.


As with all exercise for the management or improvement of health conditions, the golden rule is appropriate exercise. Everyone has different levels of ability and there are varying severities with COPD too.

With serious health conditions there is commonly an element of panic, worry and fear for a person in relation to their condition. Part of the prescription for exercise is commonly a mindset of "taking control". This can be instigated by breathing techniques which are often the first step for a person with COPD..... to take control and build the confidence to exercise.....

As well as practicing breathing, this can move into breathing control. Depending on the individuals ability, positions for breathing exercises vary, and can be seated..... which then moves into chair based exercise. Standing breathing exercises can then be introduced as the sufferer gain more confidence.

Prescribed medications have to be taken into account with exercise, as well as interventions like medical treatments such as oxygen therapy.

How an exercise program is developed depends on the ability of a person, but cardiovascular exercise is high on the list of priorities. This could be a walking plan. It could be a swimming session.

Muscles also benefit from being worked, so some level of resistance exercise is a good idea. This could be bodyweight based, it could be a pair of dumbbells in the back garden. Typically low resistance..... but a higher volume of reps to build the "muscular strength endurance aspect".


The emphasis is on exercise is duration over intensity..... which promotes more efficient breathing patterns. Functional ability can be worked on in the resistance based activities as mentioned previously, there is commonly a lack of functional ability with COPD. It is also a good idea to include some flexibility training as not only will this help physical improvements, but can also provide a confidence boost.

Exercise program content for COPD varies, and depends on the severity of the condition, and of course an individuals ability. Exercise programming is appropriate to the individual to start managing that condition.

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