For people with respiratory or heart diseases, physiotherapy is a key component of treatment.

Dalhousie physiotherapy professor Gail Dechman says within the last 10 years, the focus on treating those conditions has been to use exercise.

“Now we realize exercise has a huge role to play to help people be more functional,” she says.
It wasn’t always this way. Thirty years ago, physiotherapists focused on trying to get people to breathe better and not exert themselves," says Dechman.


Physiotherapists use exercise to help build up endurance, strength and balance. A physiotherapy lab resembles a gym, with its weights, exercise balls and treadmills. Typical physiotherapy activities include walking, biking and swimming.

With respiratory diseases, shortness of breath is a common symptom.

“The most disabling aspect of that disease is the shortness of breath,” says Dechman.

“Interestingly, even though exercise makes you short of breath, it is the most effective treatment for shortness of breath,” says Dechman.

For people with a lung disease, Dechman says they tend to be older and not move a lot because of the disease. They also become weak and their balance reactions tend not to be as good as they should be, which makes them more prone to falls.

“We know that if you’re stronger, if your balance reactions are good, you’re going to have less of a chance of falling,” she says.

Exercise is sort of a magic bullet. Research has also shown that it also reduces depression and improves cognitive function.

One of the challenges physiotherapists face is that once they are no longer working with a patient, it can be challenging for the patient to continue with their exercise regimen.

“We have to do a better job of understanding the psychology of it,” says Dechman.

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