Bronchitis symptoms include a wet, phlegm-filled cough and difficulty breathing. But can people with bronchitis exercise without making their condition worse?
Some bronchitis symptoms may be exacerbated by exercise. However, if done carefully, regular physical activity is recommended for those recovering from acute bronchitis. Exercise may also be important in the management of chronic bronchitis.
For those with bronchitis symptoms, environmental factors, such as extreme heat and cold, increase the likelihood of breathing complications. If shortness of breath, wheezing, uncontrolled coughing or dizziness occur, exercise should be stopped.
This article explores bronchitis and exercise to help those with the condition understand what they can do, safely.
Exercise and lung health
Exercise has many benefits for overall health and lung health, in particular.
During cardiovascular activity, muscles need more oxygen. This increases demand on the lungs to take in air, and the heart to circulate blood.
Muscles become stronger and more efficient with regular exercise, decreasing the amount of oxygen required for physical exertion.
When lung tissues are inflamed, the airways narrow and fill with mucus. This reduces oxygen intake during inhalation and carbon dioxide output during exhalation.
Normally, the diaphragm does most of the work required to fill and empty the lungs. It does this passively, exchanging air mixed with oxygen and gasses, in the space between it and lung tissues.
Over time, inflamed lung tissues become less flexible and do not return to their full form during exhalation, leaving behind stale air. The more stale air in this space, the less room there is for the diaphragm to contract and let in new air.
This increases the amount of work the lungs must do to maintain oxygen levels, making breathing more challenging.
If the lungs are compromised in any way, they may not be able to cope with the increased oxygen demand for physical exertion.
However, this depends on the extent of the narrowing and mucus content, which is why conditions, such as bronchitis, affect this process.
Exercising with bronchitis
Exercise allows the muscles to become more efficient and use less oxygen. As such, it can help lessen some of the symptoms of bronchitis.
If a person is properly hydrated, exercise can also loosen nasal congestion and open the sinuses.
Acute or chronic?
Deciding whether to exercise with bronchitis depends whether the condition is acute or chronic.
Cases of acute bronchitis are often caused by the common cold and clear up on their own within 3-10 days. A dry cough may persist for a few weeks after an acute case.
In contrast, chronic bronchitis is a condition included in the definition of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease or COPD.
The majority of chronic cases in the United States are caused by tobacco smoking. Long-term exposure to environmental toxins or irritants can also cause chronic bronchitis.
In chronic cases, symptoms last for at least 3 months per year for 2 successive years and require medical treatment.
Exercise with acute bronchitis
What kind and intensity of exercises are appropriate for someone with bronchitis depends on individual needs.
It should be safe to exercise if cold or flu symptoms are limited to above the neck. This includes symptoms that affect:
Those with acute bronchitis, however, should refrain from physical exertion while they have symptoms. Typically, this means avoiding purposeful exercise, during the 3-10 day recovery window.
Once symptoms resolve, it is usually safe to return to low levels of activity. This is the case even if a dry cough remains.
Getting back to regular activity levels may take several weeks after acute bronchitis. The lungs often remain inflamed after apparent recovery. This makes them less able to handle stress and more reactive to it.
Starting with more gentle exercises, or reduced versions of workouts will help the lungs slowly rebuild strength. Cutting the normal duration, frequency, and intensity of workouts in half is a good starting point for many.
Exercise with chronic bronchitis
For those with chronic bronchitis, the idea of exercise may seem daunting. However, regular cardiovascular activity is key to maintaining lung health during and after episodes.
As with acute cases, those with chronic bronchitis should ease their way into workout routines. A doctor or medical professional should be consulted to help guide the process.
There are two key exercise techniques that may help:
- Interval exercises: For those with chronic lung conditions, the European Lung Foundation recommend using intermittent or interval exercises, which alternate between a few minutes of activity, then rest, to help reduce shortness of breath.
- Controlled breathing exercises: These include pursed lip and belly breathing. They slow exhalation, keeping the airways open longer and, allowing in more air. The American Lung Association recommend doing both exercises for 5-10 minutes daily to improve symptoms, such as shortness of breath.
Pursed lip breathing involves breathing in through the nose. People then slowly and steadily exhale through pursed lips for twice as long as their inhalation.
Belly breathing requires the same inhalation and exhalation process. However, it is done without pursed lips and attention focuses on the rise and fall of the belly.
It is important to keep the head, neck, and shoulders relaxed during breathing exercises. This helps ensure the diaphragm is doing the bulk of the work and retraining the way it needs.
Considerations for exercise with both bronchitis types
Exercises and considerations recommended for those recovering from acute bronchitis or with chronic bronchitis include:
- gentle stretching exercises, such as yoga, avoiding downward or upside-down poses, as these encourage phlegm to travel upwards
- cardiovascular exercises that promote light, continuous exertion, including walking or distance swimming
- continuing everyday activities or hobbies if possible or as symptoms lessen, including housework, gardening, dog walks, or playing golf
- following a steady, comfortable pace and not pushing it
- warming up and cooling down after exercise, allowing breathing rate to increase slowly and return to normal
- focusing on improving muscle strength to improve oxygen inefficiency and decrease demand on the lungs
- focusing on the duration of exertion rather than the intensity
- mindful breathing, paying attention to the length and frequency of breath
- using a humidifier before exercising to help open the airways and loosen mucus
- adjusting a workout to meet changes in weather or environmental conditions
- taking as many breaks or rest periods as needed
- drinking plenty of fluids while exercising
- keeping in mind that it may take time, from weeks to months, to see significant results and return to normal routines
- basing the intensity of workouts on what feels comfortable instead of other factors, such as heart rate or overheating
People with chronic bronchitis may find it easier to walk with their arms braced by a walker, or even by holding onto their pant waistline or belt. Some may also need to use an oxygen machine before exercise.
Precautions when exercising with bronchitis
Exercise can help lessen the symptoms of bronchitis and speed up the recovery process, by improving muscle strength and oxygen efficiency.
But the oxygen levels demanded by physical exertion can exceed lung capabilities, especially when airways are compromised.
Exercise should be immediately stopped if shortness of breath is intense. A good rule to follow is that if a person no longer has enough airflow to talk, they have gone too far. Other symptoms that indicate exercise should be stopped immediately include:
- chest pain, especially a feeling similar to indigestion
- uncomfortable increase in chest tightness
- feeling faint or lightheaded
- increase in body aches or pain
- brownish, yellow-colored urine
Stamina should increase over time with consistent, progressively challenging exercise. If breathing problems continue to interfere with proper exercise, a doctor should be seen to reassess workout regimes or treatment plans.
Additional health complications
Those with additional health complications often require more tailored exercise plans and supervision.
Conditions that may intensify the symptoms of bronchitis and alter exercise plans include:
- lung fibrosis
- lung cancer
- heart, liver, or kidney conditions
- weakened immune system
Certain environmental factors, such as temperature, humidity, and particles in the air may worsen bronchitis symptoms and increase the likelihood of problems during exercise.
Any time symptoms become severe, do not respond to treatment, or worsen after improving, then someone should speak to a doctor.