For those of us with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), the objective of most of our treatments is to improve breathing.

Some medications act to open our airways. These are called bronchodilators. We have other medicines and devices to clear the airways of mucus. And we have breath-work exercises to support lung function.

Though I engage in each of these activities to improve my breathing, I don’t find them to be particularly fun. But they’re necessary to help me live my best life with COPD. However, I have one monthly activity that truly is fun, as well as beneficial to my health: playing the harmonica with my COPD friends.

Our leader keeps telling us how good we sound, though I suspect that she’s just being kind since I know that I make many sour notes during our time together.

Harmonicas for Health is a national program established in 2016 by the COPD Foundation and the Academy of Country Music. It began as an in-person program, but with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, it established several virtual groups as well.

In a small study, researchers at Baylor University Medical Center evaluated the program’s potential and found that “a 12-week harmonica program significantly improved PImax, PEmax [measurements of maximal inspiratory and expiratory pressures, respectively, generated at the mouth], and 6-minute walk distance in COPD patients after rehabilitation.”

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Honing my skills

I’ve had my harmonica for a few years and have played with the COPD group whenever there was a session. Since the first of the year, we’ve switched to a monthly meeting, during which we socialize for the first 30 minutes and then play the harmonica for the last 30 minutes. I started feeling guilty, though, about my lack of expertise, so I set aside time each evening to practice.

I joked to one of my friends that I practice every evening to clear the space of my animals, as they scatter when I start playing. I’ve gotten better with the fundamentals, and I think I’ve had some positive lung results, too. This perception is just how I feel and isn’t backed up by anything measurable.

When playing the harmonica, I also feel more joyful and a little more mentally alert. I checked out my theory about these feelings and found that, according to Harvard Health Publishing, the AARP conducted a survey a few years ago regarding how music affects the brain. Respondents reported the positive mental health effects of music, although the Harvard story’s author, Andrew E. Budson, MD, cautioned that the survey has limitations.

Budson did note, however, that music “has been shown to activate some of the broadest and most diverse networks of the brain.” He added that “there is only one other situation in which you can activate so many brain networks all at once, and that is when you participate in social activities.”

So I’ll continue to practice my harmonica and meet with friends for a monthly jam session. I get the best of both worlds from this activity, with the social component that enhances brain function and the stimulation that music provides.

I’ve been less than diligent in keeping up with my practice routine, but after reading more about the topic, I plan to practice as routinely as I take my medications.

Note: COPD News Today is strictly a news and information website about the disease. It does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website. The opinions expressed in this column are not those of COPD News Today or its parent company, BioNews, and are intended to spark discussion about issues pertaining to chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

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