What is respiratory disease?

Respiratory disease is a medical term that refers to any of the diseases and/or disorders that affect the airways and the lungs, causing breathing difficulties. Two of the most common types of respiratory disease are asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder (COPD).

Why is physical activity important for respiratory disease?

Having any kind of respiratory disease can be very unpleasant and not being able to breathe properly can often put people off exercising. However, if you have a respiratory disease you shouldn't let this stop you from maintaining an active lifestyle. Being more active will actually help.


Asthma is a long-term lung condition that causes occasional breathing difficulties such as coughing, wheezing and breathlessness. It affects people of all ages and often starts in childhood, although it can also develop for the first time in adults.

There's currently no cure for asthma, but there are simple treatments that can help keep the symptoms under control so it doesn't have a big impact on your life. One of these is keeping active. If you have asthma, you might be worried to take part in physical activity for fear of an asthma attack. However, taking part in physical activity and getting your heart rate up can actually improve your asthma symptoms and make your condition more manageable. Here is how:

  • Raising your heart rate regularly boosts your lung power, increases stamina and reduces breathlessness
  • Keeping active helps to support your immune system and helps fight colds and viruses – a major trigger for over 80% of people with asthma
  • Physical activity helps you to maintain a healthy weight, which reduces your risk of an asthma attack
  • Physical activity releases endorphins ('feel-good' chemicals) in your brain – studies show that if you're stressed or depressed, you're at higher risk of asthma symptoms

Depending on your asthma, you may find that exercising in certain environments may worsen your symptoms and you should bear this in mind. Generally, dry dusty conditions make asthma symptoms worse, while warm humid environments are better. The best way to avoid problems is to take your medication before you exercise, and make sure you include a good warm up and cool down session.

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is the name for a group of lung conditions that cause breathing difficulties. It includes:

  • Emphysema – damage to the air sacs in the lungs
  • Chronic bronchitis – long-term inflammation of the airways

COPD is a common condition that mainly affects middle-aged or older adults who smoke. Breathing problems tend to get gradually worse over time and can limit your normal activities, although treatment can help keep the condition under control.

If you have COPD and difficulty breathing, exercising may be frightening and the last thing you feel like doing. However, it's really important to stay active if you have COPD because if you become too sedentary (e.g. you spend long periods of time sitting down), your strength and fitness will decline, and your symptoms will become worse.

People with COPD who do exercise regularly often find that their breathing becomes easier as they get fitter and build up more muscle. They also feel less tired and have a generally better quality of life.

How much physical activity should you be doing?

If you have a form of respiratory disease and are looking to become more active to improve your symptoms, you should aim to take part in the recommended amount of physical activity for your age group, as outlined in the UK Chief Medical Officer's Physical Activity Guidelines.

For adults aged 19 and over, the recommended amount is at least 150 minutes of moderate intensity physical activity per week. Where possible, this should be a combination of cardiovascular, strength, flexibility and balance exercises. These could include:

  • Cardiovascular activities - brisk walking, cycling, swimming, dancing
  • Strength activities - resistance training, Yoga, Nordic Walking, carrying heavy shopping, heavy gardening
  • Balance/mobility - Yoga, Pilates, Tai Chi, body balance classes

However, there are lots of different ways that you can incorporate physical activity into your daily routine and every little bit of movement can make a big difference. Here are some ideas about how to make physical activity part of your day-to-day life:

  • Try to break periods of sitting as often as possible
  • If you sit at a desk or screen all day, try some chair-based exercises
  • Do some gardening or housework
  • Take regular breaks at work to stand up and move around e.g. get a glass of water
  • Walk part of your journey to work if you can
  • When you go to the work or the shops, try parking at a further car parking space

If you would like to find out more information about physical activity and respiratory disease, visit the British Lung Foundation website.

For more information about respiratory disease, asthma and COPD, follow the links below: