How Walking Can Help Relieve COPD Symptoms

7 Key Benefits of Simply Putting One Foot in Front of the Other

Walking is a safe and effective form of exercise for nearly everyone, including people living with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). This low impact activity (meaning it's easy on joints) can improve the body's ability to use oxygen, build endurance, strengthen muscles, and enhance an overall sense of well-being.

A regular walking routine also can make it easier for someone with COPD to be more self-sufficient and better able to tolerate exercise. And that's just for starters. There are plenty of other benefits of walking for a person with COPD, any one of which could be enough to have you lacing on your sneakers and heading out the door.

Weight Control

Older women walking outdoors
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If you're overweight and have COPD, the extra pounds you're carrying may make it hard for you to breathe, much less exercise. Walking at a moderate pace for 30 to 60 minutes burns stored fat and can build muscle to speed up your metabolism. Cut back on calories and you can begin to peel off those excess pounds and breathe more easily during activity and at rest. What's more, losing weight can reduce your risk of a number of potential health problems, including type 2 diabetes, heart disease, heart attack, stroke, cancer, sleep apnea, and osteoarthritis.

Lower Blood Pressure

High blood pressure, or hypertension, often goes hand in hand with COPD. Walking can go a long way toward bringing blood pressure levels down to normal, according to the American Heart Association (AHA). In fact, walking is as effective as running for lowering blood pressure. To get this benefit, the AHA advises walking for an average of 40 minutes at a moderate to vigorous pace just three or four days a week. This may even be enough to control blood pressure without the need for medication. 

Reduce Stress and Anxiety

Living with COPD can be highly stressful. What's more, as the COPD Foundation points out, stress can make COPD symptoms worse: The harder it is to breathe, the more anxious you might feel and vice-versa. It can be a difficult cycle to break out of.

When we're stressed out for any reason, our bodies release certain chemicals, epinephrine, norepinephrine, and cortisol, into our blood. This is normal, part of our natural "fight or flight" response. But when these chemicals build up, we're at risk of long-term health problems such as high blood pressure. Walking can reduce stress by helping to metabolize stress chemicals and also by bringing about the release of endorphins, brain chemicals that lower pain and lead to an overall feeling of well-being.

Improve Cardio-Respiratory Fitness

Cardio-respiratory fitness refers to the ability to do any sort of aerobic or rhythmic activity over a prolonged period of time. Aerobic activity such as walking (as well as jogging, swimming, and cycling) can help improve cardio-respiratory fitness by strengthening large muscle groups in the body. Although exercise does not directly improve lung function, it can help strengthen your muscles which will help build your endurance level. 

Relieve Depression

COPD can make it tough to accomplish even the simplest task, so it's not surprising that many people who deal with this condition become depressed. Physical activity is an excellent antidote for depression, thanks to the release of endorphins—brain chemicals that have a calming effect on the body.

Even though the feel-good effects of endorphin release is sometimes referred to as "runner's high," you can achieve it with less vigorous activity—such as brisk walking. What's more, becoming stronger and more physically fit also can boost self-esteem, which in turn can help to combat depression. 

Boost Brain Health

There's been a fair amount of research showing that COPD can affect the brain in a variety of ways, such as causing changes in mood and impaired cognition. One theory why this happens is that in people with COPD, less oxygen makes it to the brain, eventually altering brain neurochemistry and structure, according to a 2008 study published in the International Journal of Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease

Similarly, there's a growing body of research linking exercise with improved brain health. At least one study, published in 2017 in the journal BMC Public Health, has found that regular activity can have such a profound and positive effect on the brain that it can help to prevent Alzheimer's disease. 

Help You Kick the Habit

If you were a smoker at the time you were diagnosed with COPD and have since been struggling to quit, walking may put you on the path to finally kicking the habit. Even short bouts of aerobic activity can reduce the urge to light up. What's more, according to smokefree.gov, "Withdrawal symptoms and cravings for cigarettes decrease during exercise and up to 50 minutes after exercising." (Smokefree.gov is a website supported by the National Cancer Institute to provide "free, accurate, evidence-based information and professional assistance to help support the immediate and long-term needs of people trying to quit smoking.")

Regular activity also can help you avoid a common side affect of quitting smoking: weight gain. So if you've been putting off ditching the habit for fear you'll put on pounds that might make it even harder to breathe, keep in mind that by walking you can deal with two health issues at once.

On Your Mark, Get Set, Walk

The key to a successful walking routine is to start slowly. First check with your doctor. If he gives you the green light to start exercising, don't try to walk any further, faster, or longer than you can handle. Although your first goal is to walk for at least 20 to 30 minutes, four or five days a week, don't worry if that's too much. Start by walking for five minutes, four or five times a day. That could mean simply strolling from one end of your street to the other.

If you get short of breath, stop and rest for a moment before moving on. And try not to get discouraged if this happens: As long as you persist, adding a minute or two here or there, eventually you'll find that a half hour walk is, well, a walk in the park. 

Sources:

American Heart Association. "The American Heart Association Recommendations for Activity in Adults." 2016. 

Borson, Soo, et. al. "Modeling the Impact of COPD on the Brain." International Journal of Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease. Sep 2008; 3(3): 429-434.

Kathleen A. Martin Ginis, et. al. "Formulation of Evidence-Based Messages to Promote the Use of Physical Activity and Manage Alzheimer's Disease." BMC Public Health. Feb 17, 2017. 17:209.

Smokefree.gov. "Fight Cravings With Exercise." 

 

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