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Brief Exercise Benefits for COPD Patients
- WebMD Medical News
Reviewed by:
Dr. Gary Vogin

Feb. 13, 2002 -- Almost everyone knows that exercise improves your physical health, making muscles of the heart and lungs stronger, even for those with serious lung disease. A new study shows that moderately intense bursts of exercise can also give these patients a real mental edge.

Researchers found people with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) showed immediate improvement in mental function after 20 minutes of riding a stationary bicycle.

COPD is an umbrella term used to refer to a combination of two lung conditions, chronic bronchitis and emphysema, and causes impaired airflow in the lungs. It's the fourth leading cause of death in the United States and is commonly caused by smoking.

Although exercise was once considered taboo for treating COPD, researchers say doctors now frequently recommend exercise to their patients to help control the symptoms of the disease, such as shortness of breath and frequent upper respiratory infections.

Exercise eases these symptoms by increasing airflow in the lungs. But this study, which appears in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine, shows exercise also provides mental benefits.

"People with chronic lung disease may have problems with fluid intelligence - the ability to take new material and make sense of it," said study author Charles Emery, associate professor of psychology at Ohio State University, in a news release. "Exercise seems to help these individuals think more efficiently."

Researchers evaluated the effects of a single session of moderately intense exercise on 29 adults with COPD and 29 healthy adults. Each participant rode a stationary bicycle for 20 minutes. Resistance on the bike was increased until the individual reached his or her own peak exercise level (as determined by heart and breathing rates).

After the exercise session, the COPD group showed significant improvement in one measure of mental performance, known as verbal fluency.

"This indicates that they were able to process and retain information better than they could prior to exercising," said Emery in a release. "This translates to better performance on tasks like following directions, for example."

The healthy subjects did not experience a similar mental boost - most likely because they were already in better shape and had healthier lungs to begin with, according to researchers.

The study also looked at whether simply thinking and learning about exercise by watching a video on the benefits of exercise and cholesterol reduction would have a similar effect on the participants, but no cognitive improvement was found in either group. The authors say that means the physical components of exercise - such as increased breathing and blood flow -- may be responsible for the benefits to the brain.

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