There are many studies that state the benefits of regular exercise. And recently it was announced that movement throughout the day is important. Exercise helps keep our hearts strong and increases our muscle mass. It helps us think more clearly and breathe more deeply.
Any kind of cardiovascular exercise can become an issue for those with lung disease. It is hard to exercise when you are struggling for each breath, and it can be scary when one’s body isn’t getting the oxygen it needs to recover quickly. This, however, is precisely the reason that those with lung issues need to exercise.
Not exercising leads to atrophy. The heart gets weaker, the body loses muscle mass, and the lungs get “winded” more easily. Heart disease will develop, and even small movements like moving from room to room or taking a shower may become difficult.
Now, I’m not saying this is easy. And I’m certainly not saying everyone should do what I do, strap on oxygen and tackle 13.1 miles at a time. What I am saying is that it is important for everyone to keep the lung capacity they have.
I was athletic as a kid. From t-ball, bowling, ballet, tap, and playing basketball at recess, I finally settled on ballet and was part of a dance company for about 5 years. I broke away from dancing though because 1) I was really the least common denominator out there—not flexible enough or graceful by ballerina standards, and 2) I really wanted to give basketball and volleyball a try. What I couldn’t get into back then was running. I always managed to get out of those timed mile runs. I was told, “We know you can do it, but it’s hard with your lungs.”
If I could go back and talk to 16-year-old me now, I would say, “Push it. It’s worth it. I know it’s hard, and I know it causes you to cough a lot. It is worth it now, and will pay off even more when you are older.” When the cross-country coach (who was my gym teacher) approached me and asked me to join the team, I wish I would have seen it as the honor it was and said “YES.” Instead, I just thought he was nuts, and didn’t he see how hard running was for me?
The thing is, exercise is uncomfortable. When you do it right, you are breathing a little heavier, sweating, and you might feel tired afterwards. But there are various levels of exercise. We don’t all have to push ourselves to the level of Olympic athletes (cross-country skiers and marathoners come to mind), where we give it everything we have for over an hour only to collapse at the finish line gasping for breath.
It’s about finding out where we are now, and working up from there. Maybe you were a track star in high school or college but can barely make it around the block now. If you are an adult, you probably need to discard any previous knowledge of what you used to be able to do. Because unless you’re a full-time athlete now, the likelihood is that you aren’t even close to where you once were, especially if you are dealing with a chronic lung issue.
The first step, of course, is to talk to your doctor. If you’ve been inactive for a while, you’ll want to make sure your doctor doesn’t have any concerns about you picking up your activity level. If you are easily winded, you should ask your doctor about whether you might need supplemental oxygen, especially if you have an underlying lung issue.
A must for anyone with a lung issue, especially if you are exercising, is some kind of pulse oximeter. This device measures your blood oxygen levels and your heart rate, usually through your fingertip. This will let you know if there is reason to be concerned when you are exercising. Blood oxygen levels should be 88 or higher. Anyone who is below 88% on a regular basis needs supplemental oxygen. This is how I realized there was a problem for me. When I ran, my blood oxygen levels would drop into the low 80s, and on occasion the upper 70s. They would also take a while to come back to the 90s.
You don’t have to overdo it to find out where you are. Maybe give yourself a week to find out what activity level starts getting you out of breath. Or it may be that you already know getting up and moving across the room will do it. Once you have your baseline, you are ready to start moving and improving.
An activity tracker or pedometer is also a great way to see how much you move around each day. I was shocked to find that on days I worked from home and didn’t go to the gym, I didn’t even walk a mile. Now I make sure I take breaks throughout the day to walk around a little. If I’m watching TV, I’ll jog in place during commercials and go up and down a flight of stairs. If we had a treadmill in the house, I’d be on the treadmill during TV shows.
One way of starting off is by working to increase your daily steps. If you are fairly active already, try adding another mile with some exertion, maybe walking up a hill or walking at a faster pace. If you are only covering a mile or two a day, maybe add a half mile to a mile each day.
Although my activity hasn’t resulted in an increase in my pulmonary function scores, the fact that I can move faster and go longer than I could a year ago is huge. I still can’t run a mile non-stop. I can, however, walk a mile at a 3.8mph pace comfortably instead of the 3.5mph pace a year ago. And I am comfortable running at 5.5mph, whereas that was my fast pace a year ago.
Progress can be small, but there will be progress. I feel like I am now able to recover from my fall illness and IV therapy faster than in years past. I remember how much I was struggling last January, and this year I completed 104 training miles during that month, 44 more than January 2015.
If you have problems with your oxygen levels dropping too much, or if you are unable to do much without feeling exhausted, you may need to consider supplemental oxygen and pulmonary rehab. I think both are underutilized. I will be writing more about this in my next blog.
Just getting out there makes a difference. Even on the days I don’t feel my best, which is pretty much every day, moving makes a difference for me. There are plenty of times when I’m feeling winded or my lungs feel tight, but when I just get out and walk at the very least, I always feel better.