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Can exercise help me cope with asbestosis?

26 February 2015

Shortness of breath often limits what people with asbestosis can do. Everyday life can become much harder when daily activities like walking or climbing stairs become difficult.

Performing gentle exercises can help and improve overall fitness and well-being, which may help some people cope better with asbestosis.

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A study published in November 2014 – ‘Exercise training for asbestos-related and other dust-related respiratory diseases: a randomised controlled trial’ – provided compelling evidence for the benefits of exercise training in people with dust-related pleural and interstitial respiratory diseases. The study also suggested that these people should be included in pulmonary rehabilitation programmes.

Participants in the study had a diagnosis of a dust-related respiratory disease, including asbestosis and asbestos related pleural disease. They were recruited and randomised to take part in an eight-week exercise training group or a control group that was given normal care. The study was funded by a competitive grant from the Workers’ Compensation Dust Diseases Board (DDB) of New South Wales, Australia.

The randomised controlled trial demonstrated that exercise improved short and long-term exercise capacity and health-related quality of life in people with dust-related pleural and interstitial respiratory diseases, such as asbestosis.

Asbestosis can occur in individuals who have had exposure to high levels of asbestos over many years. The asbestos fibres permanently damage the alveoli (air sacks which supply oxygen to the bloodstream) in the lungs. Breathlessness can be a symptom of the lung disease and can seriously affect everyday life.

The problem with breathlessness is that it can cause inactivity, which can worsen the condition. A person feels breathless so they alter their behaviour to avoid those activities that make them breathless. This leads to a less active life that causes muscle wastage. The weaker muscles use more oxygen and are less efficient, which leads to more breathlessness and further inactivity.

This can be avoided through gentle exercise to help the body deliver more oxygen to the muscles and make them more efficient. It can help a person control their breathlessness and boost confidence to try more activities, which improves their quality of life.

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There are lots of different ways to exercise but before embarking on any form of physical activity a person should consult their doctor, nurse or health specialist. Health professions will be able to help people gain access to appropriate forms of exercise suitable for their condition, symptoms and interests.

Exercise could take the form of home exercises in front of the television, within community groups and clubs, or simply regular walks.

A safe and easy way to start suitable exercise for the lungs is through a pulmonary rehabilitation programme or to consult a specialist respiratory instructor. Both these can be accessed by simply asking a healthcare professional for information.

Specialist respiratory exercises for the lungs can take the form of:

Upper-body exercises: the muscles in the upper body are important for breathing, as well as daily activities. Arm and chest exercises might include turning a crank against resistance, or simply repetitively lifting the arms against gravity.

Lower-body exercises: these exercises vary from walking on a treadmill or around a track to more intense stair climbing. Although it might be thought that upper body exercises are more important for improving lung function, studies suggest that leg exercises are crucial for respiratory health.

Exercises for breathing muscles: breathing through a mouthpiece against resistance during rehab may increase the strength of the breathing muscles. However, these exercises are infrequently used and should only be done under medical supervision, but may help people with very weak breathing muscles.

Strength training: most respiratory exercises focus on building endurance but strength training, like lifting light weights, has been shown to increase muscle strength. This can aid the flow of oxygen around the body and improve lung efficiency, which will easy breathing problems.

Further reading:

Research article: ‘Exercise training for asbestos-related and other dust-related respiratory diseases: a randomised controlled trial’  Published: 18 November 2014

British Lung Foundation: Exercise with a lung condition


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