Living with COPD: Exercise is the best medicine

COPD | 4/20/2022
Living with COPD: Exercise is the best medicine
Being diagnosed with COPD marked a pivotal transformation in Jaana Koponen’s life. She shares the story of how exercise has slowed down the progression of her symptoms.

The diagnosis came as a nasty shock in 2015. Jaana Koponen was 52 when she learned why she had been feeling short of breath. The busy catering entrepreneur wasn’t just tired from being overworked – the airflow from her lungs was being obstructed. 

“It was scary. I knew little about COPD and feared I would literally suffocate within a few years. I decided it was time for a radical change,” she recalls. 

Online research offered solace. COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease) is a progressive lung disease commonly caused by tobacco smoking. There is no cure, but the progression of symptoms can be delayed with lifestyle changes.

“My physician was candid and made me face the facts. No medication would help if I continued smoking,” says Koponen, who kicked the habit on her first try with the help of medication. A hefty dose of willpower was also needed after 30 years of smoking a pack a day.

Hooked on exercise

Her second life-altering change was taking up regular exercise, starting with CrossCore and kettlebell training, deep stretch classes and long walks, which eventually became jogs.

“Now that pandemic restrictions have eased off, I work out at the gym 2-3 times a week, and I enjoy trying new forms of exercise, such as yoga.”

Koponen found valuable peer support from the Tampere branch of the Organisation for Respiratory Health in Finland. Family support has also been irreplaceable, with the birth of two young grandchildren providing an extra push of motivation. “Now I have the energy to run after those ankle-biters,” she says with a laugh.

Thanks to her lifestyle transformation, Koponen’s diagnosis has been downgraded from ‘moderate’ to ‘mild-to-moderate’, and the results of her latest six-minute walk test were above benchmark even for healthy people in her age group.

“Although COPD cannot be reversed, I’m in better shape today than when I was diagnosed.”

All too often people with COPD are stigmatized as having brought the disease upon themselves, but Koponen refuses to keep her diagnosis in the closet. “If my story inspires just one person to take up exercise, I’d be delighted! Don’t be scared to puff yourself out. Each day, do a little more. Soon you’ll notice a difference.”


Lungs crave a work-out

Koponen offers an inspiring example of how exercise can make a huge difference in managing COPD. There is even a medical term for this kind of supervised physical therapy: pulmonary rehabilitation.

There is ample research pointing to how COPD sufferers can benefit from regular exertion, affirms Master of Health Sciences Herkko Ryynänen.

“Exercise can compensate for COPD-related deterioration in physical, psychological, and social wellbeing. Depending on the individual case, it can prevent, reverse, or slow down the progressive de-conditioning caused by the disease,” explains.

In his work as a physiotherapist, Ryynänen has helped many COPD patients by supervising their fitness regimen and providing up-to-date facts on COPD self-management.

“I often find myself correcting outdated beliefs. Sometimes patients fear exercise because they think it’s not safe, but the best thing they can do for themselves is give their lungs a good workout.” 

Ryynänen adds that exercise intervention can also help to prevent co-morbidities such as cardiovascular diseases, metabolic syndrome, diabetes, and depression.

“Research furthermore indicates that physical activity generally improves quality of life, eases symptoms, reduces exacerbations and decreases the need for hospitalization.”


Every step counts

But how can a patient know if they are exercising enough – or too much? There is no clear-cut answer, as this depends on individual variables such as disease severity and personal preferences.

“As a rule of thumb, I advise patients to avoid a sedentary lifestyle, to get out daily, and to choose the stairs instead of the lift. Don’t be afraid to sweat and get puffed out. Every small bit of physical activity counts – it all adds up and has a big positive impact on your health and wellbeing,” Ryynänen advises.

For those looking to make a major lifestyle change, Ryynänen suggests trying a variety of new sports. “Be bold and find out what you enjoy. And if you need motivation to pick yourself off the sofa, recruit an exercise buddy. But whatever activity you choose, the key to success is finding something that is fun for you – and the health rewards you’ll reap are greater than you might imagine.”



Physical inactivity in COPD and increased patient perception of dyspnea.
Katajisto M, Kupiainen H, Rantanen P, Lindqvist A, Kilpeläinen M, Tikkanen H, Laitinen T. Int J Chron Obstruct Pulmon Dis. 2012;7:743-55. doi: 10.2147/COPD.S35497. Epub 2012 Oct 29. 

Physical activity in COPD patients decreases short-acting bronchodilator use and the number of exacerbations.
Katajisto M, Koskela J, Lindqvist A, Kilpeläinen M, Laitinen T.Respir Med. 2015 Oct;109(10):1320-5. doi: 10.1016/j.rmed.2015.08.001. Epub 2015 Aug 6.

Estimating the effectiveness of pulmonary rehabilitation for COPD exacerbations: reduction of hospital inpatient days during the following year.
Katajisto M, Laitinen T.Int J Chron Obstruct Pulmon Dis. 2017 Sep 22;12:2763-2769. doi: 10.2147/COPD.S144571


By Silja Kudel

Photo by Marjaana Malkamäki

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Orion Corporation is a globally operating Finnish pharmaceutical company. We develop, manufacture and market human and veterinary pharmaceuticals and active pharmaceutical ingredients. The dry powder inhaler developed at Orion is in the core of our respiratory therapy area.