20 June 2018
Exercise helps breathe easy
Corporate Personal Fitness work with Breathe Easy Darlington
More than 12 million people suffer respiratory disease and over a million are crippled by chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. On national Breathe Easy Week Paul Foster meets one group who refuse to be cowed by their illness.
IRENE Atkin was in her mid-Forties when she first discovered she had chronic breathing problems. Although she had smoked for some of her adult life, she packed in when she first noticed her mild breathlessness and didn’t give it much thought thereafter. But when she started feeling as though she just couldn’t breathe, even doing the most moderate of exercise, she knew things were getting worse.
Fifteen years later, Irene dreams of the days when she could just go for a long walk on a sunny day. She sighs wistfully as she looks out of her window and says: “I’d love just an hour – one hour of being normal again – to be able to remember what it felt like to be able to do things without a second thought.”
Irene has chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and asthma. She relies on pressurised oxygen pumped via a cylinder and, although she tries to use it as sparingly as possible, her prescription says she needs it 16 hours a day. Although the symptoms vary from day-to-day – and tend to be worse in winter when the cold brings with it the risk of a bad infection – on the worst days she cannot leave the house.
But Irene hasn’t given in to her illness – far from it. “In my mind I’m still 21,” she says laughing.
Irene is a member of Breathe Easy Darlington, a support group for people with COPD and many other breathing problems. Established with the help of the British Lung Foundation, the only UK charity looking after the nation’s lungs, nearly ten years ago the group meets regularly so members can learn more about their condition and how to manage it.
COPD is an umbrella term for a range of conditions, including emphysema and chronic bronchitis. If you have it your airways become inflamed and the air sacs in your lungs are damaged. This causes your airways to become narrower, which makes it harder to breathe. COPD tends to be a disease of age. Sufferers tend to be mostly over 40 and the chances of developing the condition increase as you get older.
As a result of the UK’s ageing population there are now more than a million confirmed cases. On average, one person is given a COPD diagnosis every five minutes. Although it affects both men and women, statistically there are ten per cent more women living with COPD than men.
More worrying still, the UK is among the top 20 countries for COPD mortality worldwide. In Europe, only Denmark and Hungary have higher death rates for COPD.
Although there is no known ‘cure’ experts agree a programme of exercise and education can help people cope with breathing problems and become more active and confident in managing their condition.
Nationwide there are more than 130 respiratory exercise classes running each week, with more than 1,300 people enjoying the health benefits of these classes.
Breathe Easy Darlington recently started an exercise class for people who want to improve their condition. The classes are run by a Corporate Personal Fitness (CPF) from its fitness studio in the town’s Business Central. Breathe Easy chose CFP over larger gyms because it appreciated the company’s ‘bigger-isn’t-always-better’ approach.
James Edwards, a Breathe Easy Committee member, says: “The CPF gym is state-of-the-art but it’s also compact and designed to be non-threatening. If you’re suffering breathing problems and possibly visiting a gym for the very first time, the importance of that cannot be overstated. I don’t think any of our members would fancy visiting one of the big gyms. I’d probably feel embarrassed.”
Fitness expert Victoria McFaull works with Breathe Easy’s members and claims respiratory exercise makes a huge difference to their lives.
“Even after just a couple of weeks I can see the difference,” she says. “You might think that’s not possible after a handful of classes, but the exercise doesn’t stop when they leave the gym. I give them homework as well: the first week it’s gentle stretches and the second we start on short walks. The idea is to build up lung capacity and stamina slowly – and it really does work.”
Irene agrees. She joined the classes in May and has noticed a big difference in her condition. “My walking has improved a lot,” she says. “At the last class Victoria set us a goal of going for a ten-minute walk per day, which I did. It’s really motivated me.”
CPF studio manager, Victoria, an auxiliary nurse who decided to start a new career as a personal trainer, is about to gain her Level 4 Certificate in Exercise Training for Chronic Respiratory Disease run by Loughborough College and paid for by Breathe Easy Darlington.
This has equipped her with the skills to agree and adapt a physical activity programme for adults with chronic respiratory disease.
She explains: “Obviously, your body changes with age, you lose muscle tone and your bone density changes. In addition, with Breathe Easy’s clients there are further considerations for individuals with chronic respiratory disease who may have additional clinical conditions such as diabetes, heart failure or osteoporosis.”
There’s a social aspect to the classes, too. Irene says: “I love going to the gym. It’s all kitted out and I go to exercise but it’s nice doing it along with other people you know from Breathe Easy. We all look forward to the classes.”
This week is National Breathe Easy Week when BLF members try to raise awareness of lung disease and respiratory illness. James, who is a lifelong chronic asthma sufferer, says it’s about more than just COPD. “One-in-five people suffer some form of lung disease,” he explains, “and it is responsible for around a fifth of all deaths. There are 12 million respiratory sufferers in the UK. Compare that to the seven million people who suffer from cardio pulmonary problems or the 2.5m people living with cancer and you can see how big it is.
“And yet some people still think anyone with breathing difficulties must have been a heavy smoker. We know there is a link between COPD and smoking in particular, but 20 per cent of sufferers have never smoked in their lives.
“People like me, who have chronic asthma, have never looked at a cigarette yet I wish I had a pound for every time someone has said to me ‘I bet you smoked as a lad’. Sometimes it’s quite upsetting, especially as they usually say it loudly to your face.”
James says Breathe Easy groups can make a huge difference to a sufferer’s life. Members make 42 per cent fewer unscheduled visits to their GP and a massive 57 percent fewer emergency admissions to hospital.
Now the exercise classes are up and running the members are looking to other activities. They are planning to launch a singing group (provided they can find a coach) and even a ballroom dancing class. “Just because it’s good exercise doesn’t mean we can’t have fun as well,” says James.
“We’ve got plenty of plans for the future – I just hope we have the breath to put them all in place.”