Yoga, Tai Chi and Your Lungs: The Benefits of Breathing through Exercise
There are countless health benefits of physical activity and exercise. But for those who live with a lung disease, engaging in a typical workout can be difficult, and without the guidance of a health professional may even be unsafe.
If you're affected by lung disease such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), asthma or lung cancer, there are safe exercise options for patients who have difficulty breathing, (under the guidance of a respiratory therapist or healthcare provider). Through gentle, breathing-based exercises, such as tai chi or yoga, you can improve your physical strength and keep your emotional energy in check. These practices not only improve lung health and capacity, but can also help one cope with the stress, anxiety and depression that unfortunately sometimes accompany a lung disease.
Below are a few suggestions of gentle exercises that some living with a lung disease find helpful for physical and emotional health. Remember - always consult your doctor before beginning an exercise routine.
Meditation in Motion
Tai chi is an easy, low-intensity exercise that focuses on breathing along with slow movements and poses. This series of movements flow together in a constant motion that is light on the joints and causes minimal stress on the muscles. Many even refer to the practice as "meditation in motion." It can be performed individually, but is more effective when an instructor is by your side, observing your moves. If you use oxygen or inhalers, keep them nearby during your practice.
Yoga is another excellent option for low-impact exercise. The practice of yoga is made up of two essential parts: performing physical poses, called asana, while being mindful of breathing techniques, called pranayama. Both parts are beneficial for maintaining physical and mental fitness.
Holding basic yoga poses can help raise energy levels and strengthen muscles, but it is important to not push yourself if you are uncomfortable in a pose. Beginners—especially those living with a lung disease—are encouraged to take their time and avoid any poses that may restrict breathing. It is best to get clearance from your doctor before attempting any kind of exercise, including yoga. If you do participate in a yoga class, make sure the teacher is fully qualified and they understand your needs. Many classes are offered specifically for people diagnosed with health conditions.
Can a Simple Yoga Breathing Technique Improve Quality of Life for COPD Patients?
Yoga and tai chi can be great workouts and stress relievers, whether or not you're living with a lung disease. But researchers are now trying to learn just how useful these practices are for some patients.
The American Lung Association realizes the importance of additional exercise methods in COPD. Researchers from the ALA Airways Clinical Research Centers have applied for funding for a clinical research trial to test whether simple yoga breathing helps patients with COPD.
The trial will specifically measure various aspects of the patient's quality of life, in addition to the impact of this method on symptoms, exercise tolerance, anxiety and depression. The goal is to determine whether this breathing technique will ultimately be useful for COPD patients to learn and practice at home.
"We assume this project would be of great interest to patients with COPD, since it may lead to a simple breathing exercise they can do at home," said Dr. David Kaminsky, pulmonary and critical care physician and professor at the University of Vermont's College of Medicine. "Most research in COPD involves finding new medications, which can be difficult to use, may have side effects, and are usually quite expensive. This research, instead, hopes to find a non-medication way to help patients with COPD feel better. We realize that pulmonary rehab is another method that works well, but pulmonary rehab is not widely available to patients and involves a big time commitment. We hope our project finds an alternative to both medications and rehab that can help patients with COPD feel better."
This breathing technique, called the Dirgha Three-Part Breath, involves taking in a slow, deep breath first into the lower third of the lungs, then the middle third, then the upper third and then slowly emptying the lungs during exhalation. For the study, Dr. Kaminsky hopes patients will practice this technique for five minutes at a time, three to four times a day.
COPD is a huge burden to patients and is the third leading cause of death in the U.S. It is also commonly associated with anxiety and depression.
"We think this breathing method should help improve these symptoms," said Dr. Kaminsky. "We have shown that patients with COPD can learn and practice a simple pranayama breathing technique used in yoga practice. Our preliminary works suggests that it may improve the ability to exercise. We hope to show in a larger, follow-up study that this is true, and more importantly, that it improves the quality of life of patients with COPD."
Always consult your doctor before beginning an exercise routine.
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