While there is no cure for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, exercise can help ease symptoms and improve a person’s overall health. A person should consult their doctor before starting an exercise routine and avoid overexerting themselves when exercising.

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) refers to a group of diseases that cause respiratory problems and block airflow. These include chronic bronchitis and emphysema.

More than 16 million Americans have a diagnosis of COPD. Many more suffer from COPD but do not have a diagnosis 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 is exercise.

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

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

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A person with COPD might feel it is unsafe or impossible 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, moderate exercise can improve:

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

Besides physical exercises, breathing exercises can also benefit people with COPD. This is because 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 filling the lungs with oxygen and other gasses and ridding them of waste gas. People with COPD, however, do not have fully functioning diaphragms, 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 results in lower oxygen levels and less reserved air for exercise or physical activity.

Breathing exercises can help rid the lungs of stale air, strengthen the diaphragm, and increase oxygen levels.

Experts recommend regular, moderate exercise for people with COPD.

The best types of exercise for people with COPD include:

Physical exercises

  • Stretching: Stretching is relaxing and improves flexibility. Dynamic stretching is a good way for a person to warm up before exercise. Static stretching is a good way to cool down after exercise. A person should practice holding a gentle static stretch for 10 to 30 seconds while slowly breathing, and repeat this a few times.
  • Aerobic exercise: This allows the body to use oxygen more efficiently, and 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 half an hour five times a week.
  • 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 using bodyweight calisthenics exercises. A person should repeat each exercise no more than 10 times and add small amounts of weight as repetitions become easier. A doctor or respiratory therapist should 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 COPD patients 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.

To practice pursed lip breathing, breathe in through the nose, then breathe out for twice as long through the mouth while pursing the lips.

Diaphragmic breathing

Also called belly breathing, diaphragmatic breathing helps with oxygen flow.

To perform diaphragmatic breathing, breathe in through the nose, taking note of how the belly fills up with air. Then breathe out through the mouth for two to three times as long, noting the belly falling during exhalation.

Relax the neck and shoulders while performing this exercise.

Combination physical and breathing exercises

Some exercises combine gentle physical activity with a focus on breathing, making them ideal for people with COPD, including:

Tai chi

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


Yoga is also a low-impact exercise that focuses on breathing and gentle movement.

Yoga is made up of two essential components: breathing techniques, called pranayama, and physical poses, called asana. Both benefit mental and physical fitness.

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

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 American Lung Association recommends these other 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.

As mentioned earlier, people should aim for around 150 minutes of total exercise per week, which would be equivalent to 5 sessions of 30 minutes each.

As a person becomes more used to their routine, they should increase the duration of their exercise.

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 and will be different for each individual. However, experts agree that a perceived rating of between 12 and 14 suggests that someone is performing the exercise at a moderate level.

People with COPD need to pay attention to their bodies 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 were smokers in the past.

People with a family history of COPD are at higher risk of developing the disease if they smoke.

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

Most people who develop COPD are older than 40 when symptoms start to show. People under 40 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. They can improve anxiety, stress and depression, energy levels, cardiovascular health, muscle strength, oxygen use, and shortness of breath.

The best physical exercises for COPD include stretching, aerobic exercise, and resistance training.

The best breathing exercises include pursed lip breathing and diaphragmatic breathing.

Tai chi and yoga are also beneficial, and combine physical and breathing exercises.

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