My Journey with COPD & Exercise

Posted on November 05, 2018   |   

Debbie Daro

Debbie Daro is a COPD patient and State Captain from New Jersey. As an advocate she has participated in research initiatives, advocacy efforts with her local, state, and federal officials, and regularly spreads awareness about COPD through local health fairs. To learn more about the COPD Foundation State Captain program, click here!

What is your connection with COPD? What is your COPD story?

I was diagnosed by my primary care provider with COPD in 2013. I had been feeling sick for several years leading up the diagnosis but like many smokers I kept living in denial until one day I had no choice but to see a doctor. A primary care provider diagnosed me with a chest x-ray but didn’t talk to me about COPD or provide me with any educational materials. I was prescribed a couple of inhalers, told to quit smoking, and the appointment was over.

I continued to smoke for two more years until one day when I was rushed in to see a cardiologist. I knew at that point that I had run out of time and I had to start making lifestyle changes immediately. I quit smoking the day before my first nuclear stress test. A few weeks later I found a tobacco cessation support group. The counselor there expressed concerned that I had yet to see a pulmonologist or have a pulmonary function test. On the second visit she handed me a list of pulmonologists. I had to wait a bit for an appointment but when I finally saw a pulmonologist and had my first pulmonary function test I was diagnosed with early stage 4 COPD.

How did you get involved with the COPD Foundation?

Because my primary care provider never gave me any information on COPD I went online to learn what I could on my own. That is how I found the COPD Foundation website. What initially caught my attention were the high ratings it had received, the website had won a best COPD blog award. Right away it was clear that the COPD Foundation site had reliable, trustworthy information. I also found a lot of support and answers to my questions on the 360Social forum. I owe a lot to some of the people at the COPD Foundation; they really helped me when I needed it most. The respiratory therapists that monitor the forum are always there to answer questions and help in any way they can. The RTs participation in the forum is something I really appreciate.

What has exercise done for your COPD? How has it helped?

What I do in the gym translates into real life situations. You may see dumbbells but I see grocery bags. Doing squats, means that I can continue to climb the stairs. I can’t emphasize enough how much exercise has benefited me and improved my quality of life. Through strength training and cardio I am able to do so much more, the improvement in my functional ability is surprising, more than I had expected. Five years ago I would get short of breath just getting up to get a glass of water from the kitchen. Today one of the exercises I do is to pick up a 25lb weight in each hand and walk back and forth across the gym floor as fast as I can. It exercises all the muscles I use to get groceries out of the car and into the house. The very first time I did this exercise I used 5lb weights and walked maybe 20 feet but I stuck with it, constantly challenging myself. Rebuilding some of my strength has made grocery shopping a whole lot easier and as a result, I am eating healthier food.

Did you participate in a pulmonary rehabilitation program, and if so what was it like?

My pulmonologist referred me to a pulmonary rehabilitation program which is where my motivation for exercise first began. I would very strongly recommend pulmonary rehab for all COPD patients. In pulmonary rehab I was hooked up to telemetry where I was closely monitored by healthcare professionals. I felt safe, and comfortable, knowing that people are right there to help you and support me. Exercise for a COPD patient can be intimidating, pulmonary rehabilitation gives you a safe place to work through that. It teaches you how to monitor your oxygen saturation and teaches you breathing techniques to use while exercising. In addition to building up your tolerance for exertion, it also helps you to build up your confidence. A few months after pulmonary rehab my pulmonologist had me do a pulmonary exercise program where I worked with a physiologist and a respiratory therapist doing strength training. That program really made a big difference in my quality of life and has had a big influence on the exercise I do today.

What is your typical exercise routine?

I believe the current exercise recommendation is 30 mins of aerobic every day and strength training 2 times a week. I deviate from that a little bit. I still work full time but I manage to exercise at a fitness center about 5 times a week, averaging 1.5 hours during the week and a bit longer on the weekends. I always start with 30 mins on the stationary bike for my aerobic element. For strength I use a variety of things; TRX suspension training, dumbbells, kettlebells and a variety of weight machines. I also use the TRX suspension straps for dynamic stretching and balancing exercises. Recently my pulmonologist encouraged me to do interval training which I have found to be extremely effective. I do intervals on the stationary bike, as intense as I can tolerate. I also do some kettlebell interval training, or at least as close to kettlebell HIIT as someone with my lung function can get. Achieving that higher intensity, even if it is just for a short bursts still has a lot of health benefits.

For newly diagnosed patients who want to get moving but may feel intimidated, what advice would you have for them to get started?

I know that exercise can be intimidating, I never imagined myself doing it. At first exercise seems completely counter intuitive, it seems like the last thing in the world that you should be doing. In reality it is the exact opposite, exercise is one of the most important things you can do to help yourself. If you have access to pulmonary rehab, that is the best way to get started. The respiratory therapists in pulmonary rehab are wonderful, they can help you to work through your fears and apprehensions helping you to get up and moving again. They will guide you on how to gradually increase the degree of exertion showing you how to manage your breathing, watch your O2 saturation, heart rate and blood pressure. If pulmonary rehab is not available in your area you can still exercise, talk to your doctors about other options including exercising at home. The danger isn’t in exercising; the danger lies in not exercising.


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  • Thank you for sharing your story and journey with COPD and exercise with the community Debbie!
  • Debbie- I truly enjoyed reading your post. I am so happy for you and that exercise programs along the way have helped you. You have provide me with encouragement! I have tried Pul/ Rehab at least 3 times over the last 10 years. I can never finish the programs because my pain level get's to high and I must stop. I have several problems with my back, hips and knees. In doing the rotation of exercises on the different machines, there is only one that I can tolerate and that is the tread mill. Because I've not been able to use all the machines and progress forward, the rehab folks tell me I had to stop coming because Medicare will not pay if I'm not progressing and using all the machines. I'm not sure what a person like me needs to do. Right now one of the hospitals in my area is sponsoring an exercise clinic for research and I am going to apply. Apparently it does not deal with machines. It will start sometime after the first of the year. If anyone out there has other suggestions that will help in getting some type of exercise program going for a person like myself, it would be much appreciated! I am also on supplemental o2 at 2 liters and have been since 2004, plus I also take Spiriva, Advair and Singular. I have noticed recently that I've had to increase my o2 up to 3 liters, on occasion, although my pul/function texts stay the same. Any suggestions here would also be appreciated. Oh, I have also been in PT for my back, hips and knee several times during the past 10 years and nothing seems to help. Surgery has been suggested for my knee and back, but at this time is not an option I'm willing to take. Debbie, I am like you were before you started exercising. Some days, I can hardly walk from my chair to kitchen sink to get a glass of water without becoming out of breath. A lot depends upon the weather and humidity as to what I'm able to do in any given day. It seems my life revolves around the weather and not what I want to do. In my heart I know exercise would help me, but my pain get's in the way. Suzanne
    • I wish I knew how to help Suzanne. I am surprised that PR said Medicare wouldn't pay if you weren't using all the machines. I don't know the rules but it was obviously not very accomodating, not all of us can do everything. The exercise clinic might have some ideas and know of some good alternatives for you, possibly seated Tai Chi? Since the treadmill didn't present a problem for you, can you get a treadmill for your home or possibly join a local YMCA, or gym. I exercise at a fitness center that is part of a rehab hospital. They have plenty of treadmills. Personally I do not use a treadmill because of arthritis in my hip, I do better with a stationary bike. One thing I did learn is that exercise comes very very slowly, it is all about being persistent and consistent. Of course before you do anything on your own, you should talk to your doctors about it just to be safe.

      My guess is that your increased need for O2 is related to being out of condition, especially since your test results haven't changed. Hopefully others will have more to offer.
  • Debbie, this is a wonderful post and I couldn't agree with you more, I've read it several times and started to comment and stopped, you took the words right out of my mouth and there isn't much more I could say except Thank You to EVERYONE here at the COPD Foundation, and thank you clipper for sharing your journey, your posts provide everyone a willingness to step beyond COPD.
  • Debbie I believe you are right on about my being out of shape and it being the cause for my need to up my o2. In my heart of hearts I knew that, but I didn't want to admit it. BUT - I will try and take your advise and start putting some exercise into my day a little at a time. I am looking forward to January and starting that clinical exercise research program.

    • Hopefully that program will help you to get started. That can be the hardest part.
    • MM4
      Sk40, I'm doing tai chi, definitely check into it! It's very low impact but you can feel it working! You can do it seated or stand as much as you can. We have a 93 yr old that does it with a chair near to use whenever he needs a break.
  • Clipper...Thanks for sharing your story. You are a huge help to me and everyone else in this community. You send a powerful-positive message
  • Deb - It's been a while since I've made any comments, but I am happy to report some improvements in my breathing and my pain levels. On January 6th I started a new way of carbs and no sugars. The hardest part was the sugars. I love my chocolate!!! I did not enter into that research program. Instead I went on this new diet. My daughter went on this new way of eating last November and her pain levels went way down and she lost some much needed weight. So I decided to give it a try, mostly to see if I could eliminate some of my pain. Well it has worked wonders for my pain levels, and it has also increased my breathing which is a double benefit. It has also put me in a much better frame of mind. I've checked with my pul/dr and he actually said he had heard of other patients having the same results and told me to continue. I am please with my results and it hasn't been that hard. I can eat all the salad, veggies, beef, chicken, fish and some fruits I want. No counting calories, just cut out breads, rice, potatoes and pasta. On occasion I've had a couple slices of some good bread, but that's all. In the last 7 months I've lost 20 pounds and can breath much easier on most days, and have kept my o2 a 2 liters with no further need to increase it. It's still hard when the temps are high 80's along with high humidity/dew point, but that is to be expected. I am thrilled with my results and will continue with this new way of eating. It was truly worth trying. Suzanne

  • Debbie, your are such an inspiration! I wish that I was having the same experience at Respitory Rehab as you have. All I do there is 45 minutes of 3 machines where my 02 level is checked after each one. I haven’t learned anything else. Oh, she did give me a handout on nutrition as I asked about nutrition.
    I have joined the YMCA as my insurance pays for it, and now that I see your regime, I am going to develop my own too! Thanks so much for breaking down the exercises and and explaining how each one will help.

    • Hi
      Sounds like we did the same PR program. Check in with the trainers at the YMCA, I would think they would be willing to give you a some guidance. Glad you aren’t just settling in and will be exercising even more.