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Giving athletes the power to breathe

Starting out its life as a device to help elite athletes improve performance, Professor Alison McConnell's ingenious POWERbreathe invention is equally effective in giving sufferers of lung disease a drug-free, medically proven treatment for their condition. Described as 'dumb-bells for the diaphragm', POWERbreathe improves respiratory muscles by strengthening both the diaphragm and chest, and has the potential to propel an elite athlete from beaten finalist to podium winner. Discovering that the muscles used to breathe can be strengthened by applying resistance training, Prof McConnell and her team created the device that benefits athletes by allowing them to train longer and perform better - improving results by up to five per cent in some cases.

POWERbreathe has been widely adopted by elite - and not-so-elite -athletes, from England's 2003 WorldCup winning rugby squad to Olympic Champion rowing eights. "It didn't begin as an idea for product," Prof McConnell said. "It started as a research project. I started to think about the muscles that actually bring about breathing and that led me to recognise that older people get more breathless when they exercise because they have weaker inspiratory muscles. So I thought, 'well if they've got weak muscles and they're more breathless, then we will make those muscles stronger and that may reduce their breathlessness'."

Approved by the Prescription Pricing Authority for use by asthmatics on the NHS, POWERbreathe also has a number of other medical uses, treating illnesses such as emphysema and heart disease.

The product's development perfectly illustrates how academic research can successfully be translated from the laboratory to practical applications in the gym and the hospital ward.

POWERbreathe is now being used to improve the lives of patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. The results of a six-nation (Belgium, Holland, Germany, Austria, Switzerland and Canada) clinical trial are set to open the door to more widespread use.