Woman walking forward and illuminating the path in front of her

Take Your OSA for a Walk

I’ve written previously about trying to lose a little weight to help treat my obstructive sleep apnea (OSA). One thing I also do that seems easier to do than counting calories — at least for me! — is go for walks.

I can’t speak for anyone else, but I do know this: the more I walk, the better I feel. No doubt, part of the pleasure comes from the fresh air and dose of vitamin D.

Granted, my personal experience hardly stands as scientific proof. But at the end of the day, even if I only take a 10-minute stroll around the neighborhood, I can expect to fall asleep and stay asleep with less fuss that night when I go to bed.

And research suggests my OSA symptoms are likely to improve as well.

Walking works!

Walking has been shown to be really helpful for people dealing with all kinds of health conditions. You can add people with OSA to its list of beneficiaries.

It turns out that walking serves as:

  • A preventive measure
  • A way to screen for OSA severity
  • A means for improving OSA symptoms

Research bears out these interesting findings.

Walking to prevent OSA

Recently, Australian researchers, using sleep health data obtained from the very large Ontario Health Study, looked for differences in people with and without OSA related to their physical activity.1

Their research, published last year, found that simply walking at a moderate clip for 20 minutes led to a 10 percent reduction in the risk of developing obstructive sleep apnea (OSA). This finding held true across all known OSA risk factors (gender, age, ethnicity, body mass index, etc.).1

The finding held even after controlling for known OSA risk factors such as sex, age, ethnicity, and obesity.1

Walking to screen for OSA severity

People diagnosed with moderate-to-severe OSA are given a therapy plan which may include an exercise regimen. The problem with this: people with moderate-to-severe OSA often cannot tolerate physical activity. They’re identified as having decreased functional status (DFS).

Unfortunately, problems with breathing during sleep can visit you during your waking moments. Some people with OSA, who have DFS, may experience abnormal responses to exercise tied to cardiovascular, respiratory, or muscle function.

However, it can be hard to identify these people. To solve this problem, researchers put together a Six-Minute Walk Test to use as a way to screen for DFS among people with OSA. Research shows that the distance walked within 6 minutes is strongly linked to DFS and disease severity in people with OSA.2

Walking to improve OSA symptoms

It’s not a big leap to suggest that getting a little bit of exercise can benefit everyone who lives with OSA, owing to the potential chance to lose some weight.

But here’s the thing: some studies show that exercise, like walking, may help to bring relief to people with OSA independent of any weight loss they might experience.3

Several things can happen during exercise which can benefit those with OSA:3

  • Our muscles of breathing in the chest, throat, and upper airway can become strengthened by regular exercise, which means they may not collapse as easily during sleep.
  • More physical activity reduces fluid retention in the legs, decreasing the volume that moves to the neck and airway—causing obstructions—as you recline during sleep.
  • People with OSA may take longer to achieve slow-wave sleep, a problem linked to higher daytime sleepiness and overall AHI. Exercise, such as walking, helps increase this important stage of sleep.
  • Mild exercise can help to manage inflammation, a systemic problem in people with OSA.
  • Regular exercise during the day can erase daytime fatigue (even people without OSA know this!).

Walking it off

Granted, walking by itself won’t cure anyone of OSA, nor can it replace PAP therapy or other strategies you’ve taken to breathe more easily as you sleep.

The truth is, you’ll always have OSA, and PAP remains the gold-standard treatment for it.

But if your job is to manage its symptoms, going for a walk every day — even just a short walk — may bring benefits you can see over time, not only for your OSA symptoms but for your overall health and well-being.

With that said, I’m heading out now to get in a few strides while the sun’s still out and the sky’s still clear!

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