Regular Exercise Helps Patients With Serious Lung Disease

May 28, 1998

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Regular exercise can help people with serious lung disease reduce anxiety and depression and improve endurance and some kinds of intellectual functioning, a new study shows.

This research was the first randomized study to find specifically that exercise can reduce anxiety for patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), the fourth leading cause of death in the United States.

The results are especially significant because COPD patients often limit their physical activity, said Charles Emery, co-author of the study and associate professor of psychology at Ohio State University.

³Shortness of breath is a major symptom of COPD, so it¹s natural for patients to want to take it easy, and for physicians to reinforce that,² Emery said. ³However, it¹s becoming clear that physical inactivity doesn¹t do these patients any good and probably hurts them.²

The positive results of exercise are encouraging because COPD is a chronic disease with no cure, Emery said. These findings suggest that exercise can help patients manage their symptoms with some success.

Emery conducted the study with Rebecca Schein and Neil MacIntyre of the Duke University Medical Center, and with Emily Hauck of the Dean Medical Center in Madison, WI. Their results appear in the May 1998 issue of the journal Health Psychology.

The 10-week study included 79 adults over age 50 who had COPD. They were randomly assigned to one of three groups. One group participated in regular exercise, an educational class about COPD, and a stress management class. A second group had the educational and stress management classes, but no exercise. The third group was put on a waiting list, but received no treatment during the course of the study.

Participants in the exercise group met daily for four hours each day during a five-week period. Daily sessions included 45 minutes of aerobic exercise as well as strength training on Nautilus equipment. Following this five-week period, participants met for five weeks of a less-intense exercise regimen.

Those people in the second group participated in lectures and stress management sessions, but not the exercise.

The results showed that people in the exercise group showed decreases in anxiety and depression. People who participated only in lectures and stress management sessions did not show such decreases.

One reason for the decrease in anxiety may be that exercise helps people become desensitized to the shortness of breath that they live with on a daily basis. ³Over time, they see that they can become short of breath during exercise without any truly negative effects,² Emery said. ³In fact, they see that they derive some benefits from exercise.²

The people in the exercise group also showed physical improvements in the form of increased endurance, even though the exercise didn¹t actually change their lung functioning.

³People have more endurance and they can do more with their limited lung capacity,² Emery explained. ³We can¹t reverse the disease, but we can improve physical capacity.²

The exercise participants showed another benefit that the other groups did not: better performance on a test of verbal fluency. One theory is that aerobic exercise enhances oxygenation of the bloodstream and brain, which can help some kinds of cognitive functioning such as verbal fluency. And because COPD patients often have trouble breathing, it was thought that exercise may help them deliver more oxygen to the bloodstream and brain. ³These results on cognitive functioning are preliminary, but they are encouraging,² Emery said.

³Overall, this study clearly supports the benefits of exercise for COPD patients physiologically, psychologically and cognitively,² Emery said.

The research was supported by grants from the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute and the National Institute on Aging.

Ohio State University

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