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Cystic Fibrosis and Exercise

How Does Exercise Help Children with Cystic Fibrosis?

Exercise can benefit almost everyone. Research has shown that there are several other benefits for those with cystic fibrosis (CF).

In healthy children, exercise can:

  • Make heart and lungs stronger
  • Improve mood, psychological benefits
  • Improve bone health
  • Increase muscle strength
  • Help weight management
  • Improve blood lipids, blood pressure
  • Reduce risk of diabetes, heart disease
  • Improve gross-motor skills (used for jumping, throwing)
  • Improve quality of sleep

Children with CF can benefit from all those listed above PLUS these benefits reported in scientific research:

  • Releases mucus, form of ACT
  • Strengthens lungs
  • Slows the rate of decline in FEV1 and may show small increases in FEV1
  • Small increases in body weight (especially with strength training)
  • Improves quality of life
  • Increases rate of survival
  • Improves balance, flexibility

What to Know Before Starting Exercise

Before your child starts to do more exercises than normal, we suggest getting an exercise test to see how well your child’s lungs and heart are working. This test tells the doctors and exercise physiologist:

  • How hard your child can safely exercise
  • If there are any underlying health conditions that are only present during exercise
  • Your child’s level of fitness

For more information about the exercise test, talk to your doctor or exercise physiologist. After your child does an exercise test, the exercise physiologist will help you and your child start an appropriate exercise program and will keep track of your child’s progress.

Exercises to Avoid

Children with CF should not scuba dive, skydive, bungee jump or do high-intensity activities at high altitudes (mountain climbing). Children who have an enlarged liver or spleen should avoid collision sports such as football, basketball and soccer.

Helping Your Child With Exercise

The most important thing is to make exercise enjoyable for your child. Here are some tips on making exercise fun:

  • Make it a social event. Take this chance to spend more time with your child and go on a family bike ride or play sports together. Perhaps your child can invite a friend to do exercise. Some children are more competitive and would benefit from being a part of a sports or dance team.
  • Try something different. One of the most common reasons why people stop exercising is because it becomes boring. Urge your child to try different kinds of activities – even activities you have never tried before or activities you think your child will not like. Just like trying new foods, you never know if you will like an activity until you try it!
  • Set small, achievable goals. Work with your child to set achievable goals. For instance, if your child likes to walk or run, set a goal to run a 5K race. Be careful not to set expectations too high because disappointment can cause your child to not enjoy the activity.

Things to Remember

  • Exercise may cause your child to cough, and this is normal in children with CF. You may want to encourage your child to keep tissues nearby while exercising. If you are concerned about your child’s coughing during exercise, talk with your doctor and exercise physiologist. Sometimes children with CF can benefit from using an inhaler before exercising.
  • Urge your child to perform huff coughs during and especially after exercise. These coughs will help release more mucus compared to regular coughing.
  • Have your child drink plenty of fluids. Your child may need to drink water before, during and especially after exercise. Get in the habit of keeping a water bottle close by when your child is exercising. During hot weather, children with CF may lose large amounts of sodium and chloride through sweat and will need to replace these nutrients. Most sports drinks (like GatoradeTM and PoweradeTM) contain sodium and chloride.
  • Children who have cystic fibrosis-related diabetes mellitus (CFRD) may need to increase carbohydrate intake on the days that they exercise. Ask your dietitian, exercise physiologist or doctor if you are concerned about your child’s blood glucose.

Last Updated 06/2020

Reviewed By Jennifer Mack, RNIII, Cystic Fibrosis Center Coordinator