Good news for smokers.

A group of researchers from Osaka has discovered that physical activity can be beneficial to patients with progressive smoking-induced pulmonary diseases.

The team representing Osaka City University’s department of respiratory medicine concluded that increased levels of the hormone irisin, released during exercise, may help slow the progress of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

COPD is a group of chronic and inflammatory lung diseases that cause limitation in lung airflow and may be life-threatening and progressively lead to death, according to the World Health Organization. They are characterized by symptoms such as breathlessness, excessive production of sputum, a mix of saliva and mucus discharged from the respiratory tract, and chronic coughing.

“We found out that exercising can reduce the negative effects of smoking,” Kazuhisa Asai, a lecturer for the department of respiratory medicine who was among the researchers, said by telephone.

He added, however, that it has not been confirmed if even regular intense exercise can prevent smokers from contracting the disease and said that not all smokers are predisposed toward contracting it.

The eight-member team led by Kazuto Hirata, a professor in the university’s department of respiratory medicine, discovered that smokers had lower concentrations of irisin, a skeletal muscle cell-derived hormone released even during moderate aerobic activity.

Irisin activates genes that prompt white fat cells to turn into brown fat, which burns calories.

The study, launched last spring and aimed at confirming the effects of irisin on COPD progress, was conducted on 40 men and women suffering from COPD, comparing the concentration of irisin in their blood and lung functions. The patients’ average age was 73 and their physical activity was divided into four categories, from strolls or cycling less than two hours per week to more intense activities such as gardening or sports performed for more than four hours per week.

“Many people who develop symptoms such as shortness of breath reduce their physical activity,” Asai said.

He explained the group found that decreased levels of irisin are related to emphysema associated with COPD, a disease damaging the air sacs in lungs. The group also found that irisin can prevent COPD patients from worsening their symptoms and the hormone can be used in treatment of COPD.

The results were published Monday, Japan time, in the International Journal of Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, a peer-reviewed journal of therapeutics and pharmacology focusing on reporting of clinical studies and reviews concerning COPD.

The results should serve as a message that regular physical activity can suppress the progress of the disease, Asai said.

The group is planning to further study how effectively exercising can reduce the risk of aggravation of the COPD symptoms, he said.

More than 5 million people have been diagnosed with COPD in Japan, according to the Nippon COPD Epidemology Study cited by the Osaka researchers.

It is believed that COPD is the 10th leading cause of death in Japan. It is currently fourth worldwide and projected to become the third by 2030, according to WHO.

“It is believed that people who smoke a pack of 20 cigarettes per day for 10 years are at higher risk of contracting COPD,” said Asai.

He also warned that the findings should not be interpreted as a license to smoke.

“It has been proven in many studies that people subjected to secondhand smoking are also at risk,” Asai said.

Although the government’s recent efforts to ban smoking in public places are mainly for the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games, he said he will support the campaign.

“There are many people dying of this disease in front of our eyes,” Asai said.

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