Run more, breathe easy: Exercise lowers risk of airway disease

OAK BROOK, Ill. — It shouldn’t be all that surprising that exercise is generally conducive to a healthy life. That being said, a new study is diving deeper into the specifics of the matter. Researchers from the Radiological Society of America report exercise is linked to a lower long-term risk of bronchiectasis, a potentially serious disease of the airways.

Bronchiectasis causes numerous and repeating inflammation cycles that can damage airways leaving them enlarged, scarred, and less capable of clearing away mucus. All this can leave patients much more susceptible to infections, and risk increases with age and the presence of other underlying conditions like cystic fibrosis. On top of all this, there is no known cure for bronchiectasis.

How do doctors detect bronchiectasis?

Usually, a CT scan is used to determine whether or not someone is dealing with bronchiectasis. Although, some have the disease and experience no outward symptoms.

Up until now, though, methods of mitigating one’s risk of bronchiectasis have remained largely a mystery. So, the research team set out to find some answers. To that end, study authors analyzed data originally collected for the long-running Coronary Artery Disease in Young Adults (CARDIA) study. First launched in 1984, CARDIA is intended to examine the risk factors for coronary artery disease in young adults.

In all, that dataset encompassed 2,077 healthy adults between the ages of 18 and 30 at the start. Participants were tracked over a 30-year period via fitness tests and CT scans.

“We used year zero and year 20 cardiorespiratory fitness measured as exercise duration on a treadmill and ascertained bronchiectasis on chest CT at year 25,” says study lead author Alejandro A. Diaz, M.D., M.P.H., assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and associate scientist at Division of Pulmonary and Critical Care Medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, in a media release. “We assessed whether differences in treadmill duration between year zero and 20 were associated with bronchiectasis on CT at year 25.”

Among that entire group, 209 people (9.6%) developed bronchiectasis by year 25. However, “preservation of cardiorespiratory fitness reduced the odds of bronchiectasis on CT at year 25.”

“In an adjusted model, one minute longer treadmill duration between year zero and year 20 was associated with 12% lower odds of bronchiectasis on CT at year 25,” Dr. Diaz explains. “Having preserved fitness at middle age is associated with lower chances of bronchiectasis.”

So how does exercise prevent the disease?

As far as an explanation as to the connection between cardiorespiratory fitness and bronchiectasis, researchers have a few theories. Cardiorespiratory fitness is known to promote lower levels of inflammation in the lungs, which probably helps prevent bronchiectasis. Additionally, consistent cardiorespiratory fitness also reduces one’s odds of other diseases associated with bronchiectasis, such as asthma and pneumonia. Or, exercise may just make it easier for airways to clear out mucus.

It’s also worth noting that a higher rate of bronchiectasis was seen than in previous studies. Researchers say this suggests CT scans are particularly effective at detecting bronchiectasis.

“This study suggests that bronchiectasis on CT scans might be more frequent than previously thought,” the study author adds. “However, the clinical implications of finding bronchiectasis on CT scans in people with no or mild symptoms remain to be determined.”

“These results amplify the benefits of fitness to human health when a sedentary lifestyle is a concerning world epidemic,” Dr. Diaz concludes. “It also highlights that fitness might be a tool to preserve lung health. The airways are challenged by what we breathe in every minute, and fitness may help to preserve lung health from injuries.”

The study appears in the journal Radiology.