New research shows that physical activity cuts hospital readmission rates for people with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), indicating a possible prevention strategy against the potentially life-threatening lung condition that affects millions of Americans.

The findings show that COPD patients who participate in any level of moderate to vigorous exercise are much less likely to return to the hospital within 30 days or admission compared to inactive patients, lead author Dr. Huong Nguyen told reporters, adding that “the results of this study are groundbreaking because measures of physical activity were derived from routine clinical care, instead of lengthy physical activity surveys or activity devices in smaller research samples.”

The study, which is published in the journal Annals of the American Thoracic Society, used data from 6,042 COPD patients admitted to Kaiser Permanente hospitals in Southern California between Jan. 1, 2011 and Dec. 31, 2012. Using electronic health records, the researchers categorized the subjects into three groups: inactive, insufficiently active, and active. They then looked at each patient’s exercise level in relation to his or her progress following initial hospitalization.

The team found that, compared to inactive subjects, COPD patients who exercised 150 minutes a week or more had a 34 percent lower risk of readmission. Notably, the reduced risk was nearly the same for patients reporting at least some exercise; even though they didn’t reach 150 minutes, they still had a 33 percent lower risk of readmission within 30 days compared to sedentary patients.

"Previous research has only analyzed the relationship between physical inactivity and increased mortality rate and hospitalizations, but not 30-day readmissions in patients with COPD,” Nguyen explained.

COPD and Exercise

According to the American Lung Association, COPD is currently the third leading cause of death in America, with more than 130,000 deaths recorded annually. The condition, which is characterized by respiratory symptoms like wheezing and chest tightening, currently affects nearly 13 million U.S. adults. Up to 90 percent of COPD deaths are caused by smoking.

The new study addresses the growing need for new interventions aimed at reducing hospital readmission after discharge among patients. “Our findings suggest that regular physical activity could buffer the stresses of hospitalization,” Nguyen told reporters. “Future studies will focus on determining whether we can reduce hospitalizations by improving physical activity in patients with COPD."

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