COPD, Asthma, and YOU: Benefits of Outdoor Activity

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As Autumn arrives, many of us are anxious to get outdoors after staying in air-conditioning during a hot summer. If you have COPD or care for someone who does, this is a good time to take your exercise routine outside. The benefits of doing so are immediate and long-lasting. Besides, during the COVID-19 pandemic, while practicing social distancing the outdoors is one of the safer places to engage in exercise activity. 

What Exercise Can Do for You 

Difficulty in breathing often causes people to avoid exercise, and that reduces their fitness level, making breathing even harder. To improve breathing, it is important to reverse this spiral by becoming more active.  

Always consult your physician before beginning or modifying any exercise program. Every person’s state of health is unique, and your physician can guide you regarding exercise, supplemental oxygen use, and adjustments to your medication as needed. 

Exercise can improve your muscles, including those directly involved in breathing, as well as your heart, circulation, and efficient use of oxygen. Exercise also offers the following additional benefits: 

  • Builds energy levels so that you can do more without becoming tired 
  • Increases your endurance 
  • Lowers blood pressure 
  • Improves balance, joint flexibility, and strength 
  • Helps you reach a healthy weight 
  • Reduces stress, anxiety, and depression 
  • Improves self-esteem and how you feel about yourself 
  • Promotes better sleep 
  • Improves mental acuity 

COPD might make exercise more challenging for you. Just remember that exercise as a normal part of your life will improve your overall health and help you manage your COPD. 

Types of Outdoor Exercise to Consider 

Depending on your current fitness level, you might consider the following types of outdoor exercise. 

Walking confers many benefits, and you can easily do it without using equipment beyond a good pair of well-fitting shoes. If you use supplemental oxygen, take it with you (your doctor might adjust your flow rate for exercise activity). If you use a portable nebulizer, be sure to take that along with you. 

If you have not been exercising for a while, think about beginning slowly, gradually increasing the distance, time, and speed of your walking. Some people aim to increase their distance by just a few feet a day.  

To help keep your beathing relaxed, try to breathe in through your nose whenever possible and breathe out through pursed lips. It can also be extra beneficial to exhale twice as long as you take to inhale. For example, if you inhale for two counts, try to exhale for four. (See the Cleveland Clinic guidelines.) 

Cycling, for those who are more fit, is also a good way to enjoy the fall scenery. Of course, this requires a good bicycle and a safe place to ride. Starting out, you might consider using a paved, fairly level bike path, sidewalk, or quiet street. You can always increase the length and challenge of your trip gradually. Following the same guidelines for measuring intensity that you use for walking would help you adjust to your improving level of fitness. 

Precautions to Keep in Mind 

As noted earlier, always consult your physician before beginning or modifying any exercise program. Every person’s state of health is unique, and your physician can guide you regarding exercise, supplemental oxygen use, and adjustments to your medication as needed. 

Weather can pose challenges for exercising outdoors. Whether walking or cycling, it’s always a good idea to keep your eye on it. If air temperature is too cold, your breathing will become more difficult; that can also happen if the temperature is too warm. Try to exercise during the mid-to-late morning or late afternoon on most fall days when temperatures are usually moderate. 

Poor Air Quality can directly affect your health and ability to breathe. If officials announce that the air quality is poor to moderate because of pollution, you might want to remain indoors until it improves. 

Begin Gently. When you are just starting out, walk or cycle only as far as you can be certain of returning safely. You might also consider walking or cycling on paved, level surfaces until you gain more strength and endurance. 

Plan Ahead. If you are able and inclined to hike in wooded areas, there are likely many trails to enjoy nearby. Knowing what to expect—length of a trail, degree of difficulty, availability of facilities, access restrictions enforced during the COVID-19 pandemic—is especially important here. State and government run parks and nature preserves often provide maps and other information on their websites. AllTrails (https://www.alltrails.com/) provides helpful information nationally (some of their services are paid). 

Stretch before and after you exercise. As beneficial as walking, cycling, and other exercise can be, stretching muscles and tendons before and after exercising can prevent harm. Athletes know this well, and most stretch during warm up and cool down periods to prevent cramping and to preserve flexibility. The Canadian Lung Association has published a helpful PDF guide to stretching for all types of exercise; you can download it here: https://bit.ly/33xXNmg.   

Have Fun!  

Getting outdoors nourishes us as human beings. Going for a walk allows us to enjoy the colorful leaves in the fall, a cool breeze in the evening, the songs of birds in the morning. Nature can heal both the spirit and the body. On conscious and unconscious levels, we respond positively to such experiences. 

In addition, part of the fun involves setting and achieving realistic goals. Depending on your current level of fitness and activity, noticing improvement in your COPD symptoms might take some time. But the improvement will come, especially if you engage in activities that you enjoy. 

Now’s the time to get out and enjoy some fresh air while improving your health at the same time.