But four months ago, she could barely climb stairs. A run for the bus led to a scary episode.
"I was wheezing so badly that everyone on the bus told me to take a seat. They also told me not to die on the bus, and make them late for work," said Hawkins.
Darlene used to smoke. Recently, doctors diagnosed her with chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder or COPD. It's when tobacco smoke or pollution inflame the airways.
"And this inflammation narrows the airways, and leads to the breathlessness that these patients commonly present with," said Dr. Cooper, UCLA Medical Center.
Traditional treatment involves breathing meds and in-hospital rehab programs. Now, researchers at UCLA have put together a scientific exercise prescription they're sharing with local gyms.
"It is very clear that regular exercise and training for people with COPD is life saving," said Thomas Storer, PhD., UCLA exercise physiologist.
Darlene Hawkins meets with her trainer Trent Mitchell for 20 sessions. After every meeting, he sends notes to UCLA.
Once a month, she gets her lung function assessed. She saw results early on.
"That's what was amazing it didn't take that long to improve," said Hawkins.
Experts say exercise doesn't grow more airways, but it improves muscle strength and circulation. This helps take the burden off of the lungs during exertion.
"The muscle is getting bigger and getting better blood supply. It improves its ability to take up oxygen and generate the energy that is required," said Storer.
Today Darlene can run up stairs without missing a beat.
"The last time I took the Redline to Civic Center, instead of taking the escalator, I took the steps. I made it to the top without a single stop," said Hawkins.
Breathe L.A. is sponsoring the three month study. Patients are also encouraged to eat lots of fruits and vegetables and less carbohydrates.
Dr. Cooper says carbs generate carbon dioxide when it breaks down and that can put an extra burden on the lungs.
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