Although there is no cure for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), exercise can help ease the symptoms and improve a person’s overall health.

COPD is an umbrella term for a group of diseases that cause respiratory problems and block airflow. These diseases include chronic bronchitis and emphysema.

About 16 million people in the United States have received a diagnosis of COPD. Many more people likely have undiagnosed COPD and are not receiving treatment.

There is no cure for COPD, but medical professionals are able to treat it. One treatment that researchers have found can improve the symptoms of COPD over time is exercise.

Exercise promotes blood circulation and helps the heart send oxygen to the body. It also strengthens the respiratory muscles, which can make breathing easier.

However, a person should consult a doctor before starting an exercise routine and avoid overexerting themself when exercising.

This article explores how exercise can improve COPD symptoms, the best exercises to do, and risk factors for COPD.

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Experts recommend regular, moderate exercise for people with COPD. Both physical activity and breathing exercises can play a role in improving the symptoms of COPD.

Physical exercises

The best types of physical exercise for people with COPD include:

  • Stretching: Stretching is relaxing and improves flexibility. Dynamic stretching is a good way for a person to warm up before exercise, and static stretching is a good way to cool down afterward. A person should practice holding a gentle static stretch for 10–30 seconds while breathing slowly and repeat this a few times.
  • Aerobic exercise: As it allows the body to use oxygen more efficiently, this form of exercise is generally good for the lungs and heart. Swimming, walking, and cycling are good examples of aerobic exercise. A person with COPD should aim to do aerobic exercise for about 30 minutes five times a week, which is the advice for all adults.
  • Resistance training: This strengthens muscles, including those that help with breathing. It usually involves resistance bands and weights, but a person can perform resistance training at home by performing calisthenics exercises, which just use body weight. A person should repeat each exercise no more than 10 times and add small amounts of weight as the repetitions become easier. A doctor or respiratory therapist can provide guidance on a suitable resistance training program.

It is usually safe for a person with COPD to exercise, but they should not exercise if they:

  • have chest pain
  • are out of oxygen
  • have an infection or fever
  • feel nauseated

Breathing exercises

Pulmonary rehabilitation specialists teach breathing exercises to people with COPD to increase the efficiency of their lungs. These exercises include:

Pursed lip breathing

This exercise helps a person take fewer breaths and keep their airways open for longer. It helps more air flow in and out of the lungs so that a person can sustain activity for longer without becoming too short of breath.

Pursed lip breathing involves breathing in through the nose and then breathing out for twice as long through the mouth while pursing the lips.

Diaphragmic breathing

Diaphragmatic breathing, which some people refer to as belly breathing, helps with oxygen flow.

A person can perform diaphragmatic breathing by breathing in through the nose and then breathing out through the mouth for two to three times as long. They should be aware of the belly expanding when breathing in and note it falling during exhalation.

It is important to relax the neck and shoulders while performing this exercise.

Exercises combining physical activity and breathing

Some exercises combine gentle physical activity with a focus on breathing, making them ideal for people with COPD. These combination exercises include:

Tai chi

Tai chi is a low intensity form of exercise that focuses on slow movement and breathing. People perform a series of movements that flow together in constant motion. It causes minimal stress on the muscles and is easy on the joints.


Yoga is another low impact form of exercise that focuses on breathing and gentle movement.

Yoga comprises two essential components: breathing techniques, called pranayama, and physical poses, called asana. Together, they benefit both mental and physical fitness.

However, a person with COPD should consult an expert to avoid any poses that may restrict breathing.

A person with COPD might worry that it is unsafe or impossible for them to exercise, as doing so may cause them to feel tired and short of breath.

However, the right amount and type of exercise can be beneficial to people with respiratory complications. According to the American Lung Association (ALA), moderate exercise can improve:

  • anxiety, stress, and depression
  • energy levels
  • the body’s use of oxygen
  • cardiovascular fitness
  • shortness of breath
  • muscle strength
  • self-esteem

The ALA notes that breathing exercises can also benefit people with COPD. The reason for this is that they can help improve symptoms of an underactive diaphragm.

People with healthy lungs breathe in and out naturally. Their diaphragm does most of the work in filling the lungs with oxygen and other gasses and ridding them of waste gas. People with COPD, however, do not have a fully functioning diaphragm, so stale waste gas becomes trapped in the lungs.

Stale air builds up over time, and the body begins to use other muscles in the chest, back, and neck for breathing. This switch results in lower oxygen levels and less reserved air for exercise or physical activity.

Breathing exercises can help rid the lungs of stale air, as well as strengthening the diaphragm and increasing oxygen levels.

If a person uses supplemental oxygen, they should use it while exercising.

A doctor may adjust the flow rate for physical activity, which will be different from the rate used when a person is resting.

The ALA offers some additional tips for breathing while exercising:

  • Remember to inhale before beginning the exercise and exhale through the most difficult part of the exercise.
  • Take slow breaths and go at a manageable pace.
  • Purse the lips while breathing out.

People should aim for about 150 minutes of total exercise per week, which is equivalent to five sessions of 30 minutes each.

A person who is new to exercise may wish to start with shorter sessions and increase the duration of their activities as they become more used to their routine.

It is important that people with COPD track the intensity level of their exercise.

The Borg Rating of Perceived Exertion (RPE) measures how hard a person thinks their body is working during exercise. The RPE ranges from 6 to 20.

RPE is a subjective measure, so it will be different for each individual. However, experts agree that a perceived rating of 12–14 suggests that someone is performing the exercise at a moderate level.

People with COPD need to pay attention to the body while exercising and avoid overexertion. If a person exercises too hard, they may risk making their COPD symptoms worse.

The most common risk factor for COPD is smoking. Up to 75% of people with COPD smoke or have a history of smoking.

Having a family history of COPD puts a person at higher risk of developing the disease if they smoke.

People who have had long-term exposure to other lung irritants also have an increased risk of COPD. These irritants include chemical fumes, dust from the workplace, secondhand smoke, and air pollution.

Most people who develop COPD are older than 40 years of age when symptoms start to show. However, younger people may develop the disease if they have a predisposing health issue, such as the genetic condition alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency.

Physical and breathing exercises can benefit people with COPD by improving oxygen use, muscle strength, and cardiovascular health. They can also reduce anxiety, stress, and depression, as well as shortness of breath.

The best types of physical exercise for COPD are stretching, aerobic exercise, and resistance training. The best breathing exercises include pursed lip breathing and diaphragmatic breathing.

Tai chi and yoga, which combine physical activity and breathing work, are often also beneficial.

A person with COPD should monitor their levels of exertion and aim to exercise at a moderate level.