For someone who has chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), exercising may seem unwise due to experiencing shortness of breath. But regular physical activity could help lessen COPD symptoms.

COPD affects approximately 30 million people across the United States.

This article explores the different exercises for people with COPD and how they can help lessen the symptoms of this respiratory condition.

A male who may have COPD performing a plank for exercise.Share on Pinterest
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Regular exercise increases cardiovascular fitness and positively affects people with COPD.

According to the American Lung Association (ALA), moderate exercise can improve:

It promotes blood circulation and the development of stronger respiratory muscles, making it easier to breathe. It also increases the amount of oxygen pumped from the heart to the rest of the body.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), moderate exercises are those that burn 3.5–7 calories per minute. They can include brisk walking, cycling, and gardening.

Individuals with COPD should talk with their doctor to find out about suitable forms of activity.

They can then design a training program that includes general rehabilitation principles.

The COPD Foundation note that people with COPD should aim to take part in short, repeated forms of activity, three to four times per week ranging from 20–30 minutes.

As someone becomes more used to the routine, they can increase the duration of their exercise sessions.

Some individuals with COPD require oxygen therapy. With approval from their doctor, they may still train while doing oxygen therapy.

Alterations to an oxygen tank are possible, making it more suitable for a person to use while exercising. This includes changes such as fitting longer tubes or using a lighter, portable oxygen tank designed for traveling.

Certain breathing exercises can help people breathe more efficiently as they train.

Individuals should consult a respiratory healthcare professional or physical therapist before attempting new breathing techniques, as they can be challenging.

Examples of breathing exercises that can help during exercise include:

Pursed-lips breathing

Pursed-lips breathing is a breathing technique that aids in centered breathing.

Employing this technique before and after exercise will cause breathing to slow down.

A person can try the following steps:

  1. Inhale through the nose for around 2 seconds.
  2. Hold the breath, pucker the lips as if inflating a balloon, and prepare to exhale.
  3. Exhale through the mouth, twice as slowly as the inhalation.
  4. Repeat as required.

Diaphragmatic breathing

Diaphragmatic breathing, or belly breathing, involves raising the abdomen during inhalation and lowering it on exhalation. This can reduce the shortness of breath people with COPD may experience during exercise.

A person can try the following steps:

  1. Place one hand on the abdomen, and the other on the upper chest.
  2. Focus breathing on the abdominal area.
  3. While breathing in through the nose, the hand placed on the abdomen should rise.
  4. While exhaling through the lips, the hand placed on the abdomen should lower.

During this exercise, the hand on the upper chest should not rise.

Planning an exercise program can provide structure to training sessions, helping to prevent burnout and overexertion.

Typical phases of an exercise program include warming up the body, conditioning, and cooling down.

Warmup

There are different warmups, including dynamic warmups and static stretching, such as light jogging, squats, or lunges.

A 2018 article notes that performing warmups:

  • increases muscle temperature
  • increases blood flow
  • reduces the risk of injuries

Stretching can also help to increase the range of motion of a person’s joints.

Learn more about dynamic stretching here.

Cooldown

The final part of a routine is the cooldown. This gradually reduces the intensity of the conditioning phase.

A person can perform light exercises recommended for warmups.

Aerobic, stretching, and resistance exercises can all be beneficial to people with COPD.

A 2016 review notes that aerobic and resistance training in those with stable COPD could increase their quality of life by:

  • reducing shortness of breath
  • reducing anxiety
  • reducing depression
  • increasing quality of life

Aerobic exercises a person with COPD can try include walking and cycling.

The ALA note that these activities are beneficial for the heart and lungs. They can also help the body use oxygen more efficiently. A person can do this for approximately half an hour at a time, a few times a week.

Stretching exercises such as yoga help the body use oxygen more effectively.

A 2015 study found that yoga can have a positive effect on lung function in those with COPD.

Resistance exercises are also called strength training or weightlifting. They help people develop greater muscular strength through repetitive movements that cause the muscles to contract.

These exercises usually involve weights or resistance bands. A healthcare professional can give a person some exercises to try at home.

For individuals with COPD, it is crucial to track activity intensity. This helps prevent overexertion and exacerbation of COPD symptoms.

Perceived exertion is how hard someone thinks their body is working during exercise.

The Perceived Exertion scale, or Borg Rating of Perceived Exertion (RPE), measures the physical intensity level of a specific activity.

The RPE ranges from 6–20.

While it is a subjective measure, RPE provides one way to track activity intensity.

Signs of exertion include physiological sensations, such as:

  • increased sweating
  • muscle fatigue
  • increased heart rate
  • increased respiration

It is important for people with COPD to listen to their body while exercising. If a person works too hard, they risk making their COPD symptoms worse.

In certain situations, individuals with COPD should not workout, including:

  • feeling nauseous
  • being out of oxygen
  • feeling unwell with a fever or strep throat
  • experiencing chest pain

If in any doubt, individuals should rest until they have discussed their symptoms with their doctor.

When seeking guidance, individuals should contact a healthcare professional, who can refer them to more specialized medical professionals and treatments.

When developing a new workout plan, people should discuss their options with a doctor. The doctor will consider the individual’s personal limitations and create an effective therapeutic training strategy.

The ALA provide a helpline for people living with COPD. They also have virtual and local support groups where individuals can find help and guidance to live as healthily as possible with COPD.

Pulmonary rehabilitation

Pulmonary rehabilitation is a supervised program that aims to help people with various lung conditions, including COPD.

The training program is made up of several components, including health education, exercise training, and specific breathing techniques.

A combination of medical support and regular activity can improve quality of life and overall health for someone with COPD.

An exercise program should combine aerobic, stretching, and resistance exercises to optimize potential benefits.

Although COPD may make exercises harder to do, regular physical activity can have many benefits for people with the condition.