A breath of fresh air

Low-intensity LUNGtivity program aims to improve physical health of those with lung conditions


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If you’re living with lung disease, a new community exercise program could have you breathing a sigh of relief.

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If you’re living with lung disease, a new community exercise program could have you breathing a sigh of relief.

LUNGtivity is a low-intensity physical activity program designed for people with lung conditions such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Co-ordinated in conjunction with the Manitoba Lung Association (MLA), it’s focused on improving COPD care in the community.

“The idea is that people with chronic lung disease have a way of improving their physical health, which we know helps people with their quality of life, reduces the number of flare-ups with their lung disease and reduces their need for medication and hospitalization,” says Neil Johnston, president and CEO of the association.

Daniel Crump / Winnipeg Free Press

Neil Johnston, president and CEO of the Manitoba Lung Association, is a driving force behind LUNGtivity, a program designed for people with lung conditions such as COPD.

LUNGtivity is a continuation of the exercise portion of the pulmonary rehabilitation program offered in Manitoba for people with lung conditions such as COPD, emphysema, chronic bronchitis and pulmonary fibrosis.

Johnston, who is retired after a nearly 30-year career as a registered respiratory therapist with the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority, joined the MLA in 2017. He saw a need for continued support for those living with chronic lung disease once they completed the pulmonary rehabilitation program, which is offered at Deer Lodge Centre, Misericordia Health Centre and the Wellness Institute at Seven Oaks Hospital.

So Johnston put together a steering committee of experts and the training program was developed, with input from the Wellness Institute and the Manitoba Fitness Council.

“After the pulmonary rehabilitation program, you get set free and have to look after yourself for the rest of your life,” says Johnston. “Studies have shown that continued support for exercise has long-lasting results and if you don’t provide it within six months, those improvements decline.”

LUNGtivity was based on a model out of Nova Scotia called the Inspired COPD Outreach Program, which brings together a team of professionals to provide education and support to people with COPD and their families. Johnston says the Inspired program is recognized as a gold standard.

COPD is a lung disease that develops over time and tends to be diagnosed in people over the age of 40. It also includes people diagnosed with chronic bronchitis and emphysema.

When you have COPD your lungs are obstructed, making it hard to breathe, according to the Manitoba Lung Association. For example, someone with COPD may find it difficult to walk up stairs.

Exercise is particularly important for people with lung disease, as it helps their heart and lungs work together more efficiently to transport oxygen. LUNGtivity’s goal is to improve the lives of those who live with lung disease so they have the strength and endurance to go about their normal days.

Daniel Crump / Winnipeg Free Press

After suffering a torn tendon in her right arm, 76-year-old Kerrine Wilson was concerned about her physical condition.

Once people complete the pulmonary rehabilitation program, they should be given information about LUNGtivity.

”According to Manitoba health statistics, there are 90,000 people diagnosed with COPD in the province,” says Johnston. “LUNGtivity is a connection with an instructor, a group and something you can do for the rest of your life.

“You can often be diagnosed with COPD when you’re a bit older, like in your 60s, and you can live 15 or 20 years with it. So you want to make sure those are good-quality years.”

The program is offered in eight fitness facilities across Manitoba, including six locations in Winnipeg, one in Steinbach and a virtual option based out of Gimli. All classes are led by fitness instructors who have Manitoba Fitness Council certification in active older adults or have YMCA-certification, and are specifically trained to work with those living with lung disease. There is a fee for most classes unless it’s included as part of the facility membership.

“After taking part in either a cardiac or respiratory program, there are barriers for people to continue to exercise on their own — a lack of motivation, being worried about their health, ensuring they’re doing the exercises properly. This is a huge care gap,” says Andrea Smith, LUNGtivity program co-ordinator. “If we can get people right from the pulmonary rehab program into our chairs, we can continue the physical activity that is crucial for the self-management of their lung disease.”

Smith has a background in cardiac rehabilitation from her previous work at the Reh-Fit Centre. She’s a faculty member in kinesiology and applied health at the University of Winnipeg and is currently on sabbatical in order to develop LUNGtivity. Her experience with seniors and physical activity spans more than 30 years.

“LUNGtivity is 30 to 45 minutes of low-intensity, mostly chair-based exercises,” says Smith. “It’s functional training and includes activities that will help people get through their day. We cover all fitness components — warm up, light cardio, muscle strengthening, stretching, balance and breathing exercises.”

It’s that functional training that led Kerrine Wilson, 76, to LUNGtivity last spring. As a performing musician, she leads an active lifestyle. After suffering a torn tendon in her right arm, she was concerned about her physical condition. She read about LUNGtivity through the Whyte Ridge Community Centre website.

Daniel Crump / Winnipeg Free Press

Since completing the LUNGtivity program six months ago, Wilson says her mobility has improved significantly.

“I wanted to ensure I was doing the right exercises and stretches, and I wanted to strengthen my breathing,” she says.

As an older adult, regular physical activity is one of the most important things you can do for your health. Exercise strengthens the breathing muscles in your chest, which helps ease shortness of breath, according to the Public Health Agency of Canada.

Wilson, who teaches piano, is a church organist and conducts two choirs, was looking for low-intensity exercises that could help reinforce her breathing and enhance her flexibility.

“The (LUNGtivity) exercises opened up my chest and I felt like I was so much more flexible afterwards that I could conduct and play the organ, which takes a lot of strength to keep your arm up and play,” she says. “Especially if I’m playing for a funeral or a wedding, when I have to play 15 minutes at a time and hold my arm up. So it really helped with my flexibility.”

Since completing the program six months ago, Wilson says her mobility has improved significantly.

“I’m still doing the exercises (the instructor) taught me. But there’s no pain anymore and my breathing is better,” she says.

Smith says LUNGtivity helps older adults maintain their independence and encourages physical activity in a safe and accessible environment. She also stresses that the program helps those living with lung disease reduce feelings of breathlessness during daily activities and feel supported in lung disease self-management.

Next year, Smith hopes to expand LUNGTivity throughout the province, including Swan River, Winkler and northern Manitoba. There are also plans for Transcona, St. Vital and the potential for further programming in the City of Winnipeg Leisure Guide.

Daniel Crump / Winnipeg Free Press.

Wilson, who teaches piano, is a church organist and conducts two choirs, was looking for low-intensity exercises that could help reinforce her breathing and enhance her flexibility.

While enhancing our physical strength, exercise also provides camaraderie, a sense of accomplishment and self-care. Meeting and interacting with new people on a regular basis improves our mental health.

“The main purpose of LUNGtivity is exercise, but its secondary purpose is social,” says Johnston. “It gets people out and socializing, and socialization is almost as important as exercise in managing chronic disease.”

For more information about LUNGtivity or to register for the program, call the Manitoba Lung Association at 204-774-5501 or visit


Sabrina Carnevale

Sabrina Carnevale

Sabrina Carnevale is a freelance writer and communications specialist, and former reporter and broadcaster who is a health enthusiast. She writes a twice-monthly column focusing on wellness and fitness.

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