Breathing easier with exercise

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He worked hard all his life until he retired from his occupation as a dispatcher at 75 years of age. Even in retirement, he finds it difficult to break the habit of waking at 6:00 a.m. in the morning. At 81, Jim Williams wishes all habits were as difficult to break.

Breathing is something many of us take for granted. We just do it. We don’t have to think twice about it. Imagine that every single breath was the result of a focused effort. That’s the case for close to one million Canadians like Jim.

Jim was diagnosed with chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder (COPD) in 2006. COPD, also known as chronic bronchitis or emphysema, is a respiratory disorder characterized as a progressive, partially reversible airflow obstruction which makes it difficult to move air in and out of the lungs. This breathlessness affects the entire body.

In Jim’s case, he spent six weeks in an inpatient hospital rehabilitation program where he managed to get his disease under control. His rehabilitation included learning to cope with his disease while doing every day activities such as making his own bed, performing daily routines and participating in regular exercise. For the next two years, exercise became an integral part of Jim’s life and routine.

As the grandfather of 13 grandchildren aged three to 31 years old, Jim keeps himself very busy. He would not have dreamed of missing a day of exercise until he got so sick with a virus in June, 2008 that he was admitted as a patient at The Credit Valley Hospital. He was off his routine and didn’t exercise that week but the problem was that two and a half months passed with little to no exercise which was causing his breathlessness. Although Jim did parts of the routine some days and not others, he just couldn’t get back to the level of activity he needed to adequately address his medical needs.

Returning to the daily exercise that had been so valuable, had improved his quality of life and improved his ability to breathe well, now seemed like an unattainable feat. “I’ll do it tomorrow,” became the mantra his wife heard each day. When his respirologist referred him to Credit Valley’s pulmonary rehabilitation program, he knew it was an opportunity he couldn’t refuse. He needed the jump start that would remind him and his body how important the exercise was for his physical wellbeing.

Credit Valley’s pulmonary rehabilitation program was launched on World COPD Day in November 2006. Since then, the program has graduated 90 individuals from the 10 week program that is offered three afternoons a week for two hours. The program combines education and exercise with the goal to improve quality of life for participants. The multidisciplinary team members include registered respiratory therapists, physiotherapists, occupational therapists, kinesiologists, dietitians, social workers, physicians and of course, patients.

Deb Coutts, coordinator, pulmonary rehabilitation program at Credit Valley is proud of the program’s success. “We work with participants to find exercises they enjoy so that they are more likely to continue. We offer Tai Chi, swimming, and we even go bowling as part of the program,” she says. “Our goal is to decrease breathlessness through education, exercise and relaxation to achieve an overall improvement in our patients’ quality of life.”

Jim’s exercise of choice is walking. In his opinion, it’s a life-long exercise. “When I go for my walk, everyone is out there – some are young, some are old and bent over but they’re all out there walking.” Jim says Credit Valley’s rehabilitation program has helped him tremendously. It helps him slow down when he might otherwise have tried to push himself. “The program teaches me to relax, to stretch and to pace myself so that I don’t over-do it.”

Today, Jim parks his car, takes out his walker and enjoys the 1.5 km trail through Mississauga’s tree-lined Aquitaine walking path – not just once but three times for a total distance of 4.5 km. He also practices stretches, weights and relaxation that assist him in managing his breathing as well.

“I worked very hard all my life. Everything was a rush. It takes a long time to get that out of your system,” he says. The most valuable lesson for Jim has been that he has learned to pace himself. “What I cannot do today, I’ll do tomorrow. It used to take me 30 minutes to mow the lawn; now it takes me two hours. It still gets done,” he says with a wink and a smile.

“Exercise is the whole secret. I enjoy my walk and when I cannot walk outside with my walker, I go to a mall and walk there. I’m back into the routine and I’m enjoying it,” he says. When Jim gets to the 1.5 km mark of the nature trail walk, he sits down for a minute to watch the birds and the water before continuing with the next 1.5 km portion of his walk. It’s in that moment that he takes a precious deep breath, takes it all in and then he moves on.