Stay Active to Breathe Easier

COPD patients likely to have physical and work limitations, but exercise could help with those problems

(RxWiki News) It's easy to imagine how a breathing condition could interrupt life, but could it even disrupt the ability to hold a job? New evidence suggests that it could, but it also suggests that staying active could help.

A new study from Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) researchers found that many patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) reported trouble working and physical limitations. However, rates of these issues were lower among nonsmoking and physically active COPD patients.

"COPD is an important contributor to both mortality and disability in the United States," explained the authors of this study, led by Anne G. Wheaton, PhD, of the CDC's National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion.

COPD is actually a group of conditions, including emphysema and chronic bronchitis. These diseases cause trouble breathing and symptoms like shortness of breath and a chronic cough. In many cases, COPD is tied to a history of smoking.

To explore the effects of COPD, Dr. Wheaton and team used data from the 2013 Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System, which involved a phone survey of adults across the US. Dr. Wheaton and team looked at these results alongside data from the census to come up with estimations for the entire US population.

Dr. Wheaton and team found that across the US in 2013, an estimated 15.7 million adults (6.4 percent of the population) had COPD. The rate was highest among older adults — it was estimated that 12.3 percent of adults aged 75 or older had the disease.

These patients were more likely to face limitations related to both physical activity and employment than their peers, Dr. Wheaton and team found. For instance, 24.3 percent of adults with COPD reported being unable to work, compared with only 5.3 percent of adults without the condition.

Nearly half of adults with COPD (49.6 percent) reported some sort of activity limitation caused by health problems, compared to only 16.9 percent of other adults. COPD patients reported higher rates of trouble walking or climbing stairs (38.4 percent in COPD patients compared to 11.3 percent in others) and having to rely on special equipment to manage health issues (22.1 percent compared to 6.7 percent).

"Among adults with COPD, nonsmokers who also reported being physically active were least likely to report all of the activity limitation measures, whereas those not physically active, regardless of smoking status, were most likely to report the activity limitations," Dr. Wheaton and team wrote.

Dr. Wheaton and team stressed the importance of COPD patients quitting smoking, which can help maintain health and reduce physical limitations. Programs that educate patients and provide exercise training — even if exercise seems challenging — can also help, these researchers noted.

All of the data used in this study were self-reported. Further research is needed to better understand how COPD, physical limitations and employment all interact, Dr. Wheaton and colleagues noted.

This study was published online March 27 in the CDC's Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. Dr. Wheaton and team disclosed no funding sources or conflicts of interest.

Review Date: 
March 28, 2015