There are various breathing techniques that can help manage chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

COPD may not cause symptoms in the early stages, but in time, it can cause a persistent cough, excess mucus production, wheezing, and chest tightness. The symptoms can come and go, and when they flare up, it can be frightening. A person may feel that they cannot breathe.

However, there are ways to reduce the effects of these symptoms. Breathing techniques can help a person overcome anxiety and manage their breathing during an attack. These exercises can also improve the quality of life by helping a person feel more in control of their symptoms.

Here, learn more about breathing techniques that can help people with COPD.

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“Pulmonary rehab” refers to a program designed to help people with breathing problems due to COPD.

At this type of program, a person can:

  • learn breathing exercises that help them breathe more easily
  • learn techniques to conserve energy
  • follow a diet and exercise program that suits their needs
  • learn about COPD and ways to manage it
  • access counseling and support

The rehab often takes place in a hospital or clinic, and doctors, nurses, pulmonary therapists, and other healthcare professionals may be involved.

It is not possible to reverse the damage that COPD causes, but pulmonary rehab can help the lungs work better and improve a person’s quality of life and sense of well-being.

Research from 2021 suggests that rehab programs that provide counseling and are individualized can help people with COPD become more active and motivated to manage their symptoms.

How can Medicare help with pulmonary rehabilitation costs?

Pursed-lip breathing is one exercise that a person may learn at pulmonary rehab.

During shortness of breath, this can reduce the number of breaths taken and help keep the airways open for longer.

Pursed-lip breathing involves breathing in through the nose and then breathing out twice as slowly through pursed lips.

Here are some tips for pursed-lip breathing:

  • Sit comfortably
  • Relax the neck and shoulders.
  • Breathe in slowly through the nose while keeping the mouth closed.
  • Pucker or purse the lips, pretending to whistle or blow out a candle.
  • Breathe out all of the air in the lungs, slowly and gently, through the pursed lips.
  • The goal is to make breathing out take longer than breathing in.

It may take practice and concentration to master pursed-lip breathing. Practicing for 5–10 minutes a day helps. It is best to practice at first while breathing normally.

Pursed-lip breathing can help:

  • prevent rapid breathing
  • reduce anxiety when breathing is difficult
  • the lungs take in oxygen and remove carbon dioxide
  • slow down breathing so more air enters and leaves the lungs

Over time, pursed-lip breathing may help people with COPD become more active, a 2014 study found.

Diaphragmatic breathing, or belly breathing, engages the diaphragm to support breathing.

The diaphragm is a muscle in the belly that helps inflate the lungs. When a person has COPD, stale air can collect in the lungs. If this happens, there is less room for the diaphragm to contract.

A person may find it hard to use the diaphragm while breathing and rely on their back and shoulder muscles instead. However, using the diaphragm can help make breathing stronger.

This exercise helps a person utilize their diaphragm while breathing. It involves breathing in through the nose and out, more slowly, through the mouth. Breathing out should take two to three times longer than breathing in.

Here are some more specific instructions:

  • Sit or lie down comfortably, and put the hands on the belly.
  • Relax the muscles in the neck and shoulders.
  • Breathe in slowly through the nose, keeping the mouth closed.
  • Feel the lungs fill with air and inflate like a balloon as the belly moves outward.
  • Slowly breathe out through pursed lips.
  • Let the air out gently, trying to make it last longer than the inhale.
  • Repeat, concentrating on the belly going up and down each time.
  • Gently press on the belly while breathing out to encourage the diaphragm to move.

Try practicing this for 5–10 minutes each day.

Breathing exercises and pulmonary rehab can be life-changing for many people with COPD. And other activities may also improve breathing and the quality of life.

Singing classes

An older study, from 2012, compared the effects of either singing classes or a film class for 8 weeks in people with COPD.

The singing group had improved physical well-being by the end of the study period. Though the precise cause of the improvement is unclear, the researchers suggest that combining singing classes with medical treatment and rehab might be useful for people with COPD.

The study did not identify any improvements in breathing, but singing often involves diaphragmatic breathing, which may make it a helpful complement to pulmonary rehab and pursed-lip breathing.

A 2017 review of three studies concludes that singing is likely safe for people with COPD and may improve physical health. The review does not confirm whether singing reduces shortness of breath or helps with respiratory symptoms.


The deep breathing and poses of yoga can help with relaxation, flexibility, and mind-body wellness.

Research from 2014 suggests that doing yoga training for 3–9 months may help people with COPD improve their lung function and ability to exercise. A 2019 review supports these findings. The authors of both call for more research into the safety, long-term effects, and effects on the quality of life.

Speak with a doctor about the safety and suitability of yoga before signing up for a class.

Tai chi

Tai chi is an ancient Chinese form of martial art that focuses on gentle exercise, stretching, meditation, and mindfulness.

The authors of a 2016 review conclude that tai chi may improve a person’s breathing and ability to function overall, and that it is likely safe for people with COPD. They note that further studies into the different types of tai chi are needed.

In 2018, researchers had 60 people with COPD learn a modified version of 24-form tai chi, which is popular among older people in China.

The team concluded that this new, 6-form program could help:

  • improve lung function
  • reduce breathlessness
  • increase exercise capacity

The new program took only 3 hours to learn, was easy to follow as part of a routine, caused no reported adverse effects.

Lifestyle tips for better breathing

COPD can reduce lung function and weaken respiratory muscles. Making certain changes in a daily routine can promote lung health and may reduce the risk of the symptoms worsening.

In addition to receiving medical care, a person should consider:

  • quitting smoking and avoiding secondhand smoke
  • avoiding dust, fumes, and chemicals, whenever possible
  • washing the hands well and frequently to reduce the risk of infections
  • getting a flu shot and other recommended vaccines
  • avoiding crowds during cold and flu season

A person may wonder about the benefits of quitting smoking after they have a diagnosis of COPD. Research suggests that quitting can slow the progression of lung damage and may help prolong life.

Medical care, pulmonary rehabilitation, breathing exercises, and lifestyle choices can all help people manage COPD and be more active.

A person with COPD has emphysema, chronic bronchitis, or both.

In COPD, there is:

  • inflammation and thickening of the airways
  • a reduction in air flowing in and out of the lungs
  • low oxygen levels in the body
  • difficulty removing carbon dioxide from the body

Emphysema involves tiny air sacs in the lungs collapsing, stretching, or being destroyed, due to lung damage. This causes problems with gas exchange — the lungs become unable to take in enough oxygen, so a person may feel out of breath at rest or while exercising.

Chronic bronchitis involves inflammation in the airways. This leads to excess mucus production and clogging, which make it harder for the lungs to move air in and out.

Even light activity can cause a person with COPD to feel out of breath, and symptoms tend to worsen with time. This can lead to a cycle of becoming less active and feeling increasingly breathless with reduced activity.

COPD is a potentially life threatening lung condition that can make it difficult to breathe.

Pulmonary rehabilitation and breathing exercises — such as pursed-lip and diaphragmatic breathing — can make breathing easier, improve lung function, and boost the quality of life for people with COPD.

Quitting smoking may help slow the progression of COPD. And exercises such as tai chi and yoga may also have benefits.