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Athletes and asthmatics given the power to breathe

Nothing in life is more natural than breathing, unless you are an athlete, an asthmatic or one of the one in 20 Europeans with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

But now POWERbreathe, an invention by Brunel's Professor Alison McConnell, offers lung disease sufferers a drug-free, medically proven treatment for their conditions.And the same piece of equipment, described as “dumb-bells for the diaphragm”, could propel an elite athlete from beaten finalist to podium winner.

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

Prof McConnell and her team discovered that the muscles we all use to breathe with can be strengthened by using resistance training. The benefits for athletes are that they can train longer and perform better, in some cases up to five per cent better.

These ideas were used to create the POWERbreathe device, which has been widely adopted by elite (and not so elite) athletes, from England’s 2003 World Cup winning rugby squad to Olympic Champion rowing eights. UK Institute of Sport Head of Technical Development Dr Steven Ingham called it “one of the top ten applications of sports physiology”.

The device is also approved by the Prescription Pricing Authority for use by asthmatics on the NHS. For them it reduces breathlessness and relieves the painful and frightening effects of narrowing of their airways.

It’s also being used to improve the lives of patients with COPD with the results of a six nation (Belgium, Holland, Germany, Austria, Switzerland and Canada) clinical trial set to open the door to more widespread use.