For people with COPD , exercising may not always seem easy but not exercising at all can make things worse. In fact, there are a variety of breathing exercises you can do that could help alleviate COPD symptoms, boost the strength of your lungs, and help improve your ability to do daily activities and physical exercise.

What are the benefits of exercise for COPD?

When you’re diagnosed with COPD , it’s easy to fall into a cycle of inactivity. You may avoid activities that make you feel breathless or worry about how you’ll cope if you experience breathing difficulties whilst exercising. However, not exercising or doing physical activity can cause more harm.

  • Reduced activity will result in your muscles becoming weaker. Having weak muscles means that your body will need to work harder and use more oxygen to operate. In turn, this can make you feel more breathless.

If you remain active, learn breathing methods, and do COPD-friendly exercises, this should have a positive effect on your health and wellbeing:

  • Your muscles will become stronger, including the muscles involved in breathing – you’ll get less breathless when you move, it will be easier to be active.
  • Regular exercise can also help you maintain or lose weight, which can be important for those with COPD.
  • Physical activity can help you feel better mentally too. It can have a positive impact on self-confidence and help keep you motivated to continue with good lifestyle habits.

Breathing exercises for COPD

Breathing exercises are particularly beneficial for COPD as they help to improve and strengthen your lungs and put you in a better position for trying more physical forms of exercise. Breathing exercises help to strengthen the muscles you use for breathing, enabling you to get more oxygen and breathe more easily with less effort.

There are several breathing techniques and methods, and you don’t have to choose just one to help you manage your COPD. Some studies have found that combining the techniques and practicing several methods can have improved benefits for COPD symptoms.

Pursed lip breathing for COPD

Pursed lip breathing is a simple and easy technique to learn. It helps slow down your breathing, making it easier for the lungs to function, and helps keep your airways open for longer. It can be practiced at any time and used to help regulate your breathing when exercising.

  • Sit or stand and breathe in slowly through your nose
  • Purse your lips, as if you were about to whistle
  • Breathe out as slowly as you can through your pursed lips and aim to blow out for twice as long as you breathed in – it may help to count as you do this
  • Repeat the exercise five times, building up over time to doing 10 repetitions.

Diaphragmatic breathing for COPD

Diaphragmatic breathing is a technique where you aim to breathe from your diaphragm, rather than your upper chest. It’s often also called ‘breathing from your belly’. This technique helps to strengthen the muscles of the diaphragm, which are often weaker and less functional with COPD.

  • Sit or lie down comfortably and relax your body as much as possible
  • Place one hand on your chest and one on your stomach
  • Inhale through your nose for up to five seconds, feeling the air move into your abdomen and your stomach raise up – ideally, you should be able to feel your stomach move more than your chest does
  • Hold it for two seconds, then breathe out again for up to five seconds through your nose
  • Repeat the exercise five times.

Paced breathing for COPD

Paced breathing is an exercise to use while you’re active, such as when you’re walking or climbing stairs. The idea is that you pace your breathing to match your steps.

  • As you’re walking, count to yourself
  • Breathe in for one step, then take one or two steps as you breathe out
  • Find a pace of breathing and counting that works for you.

Breathing out hard or the ‘blow-as-you-go’ method for COPD

The breathing out hard technique is another technique to use when you’re being active as it can make it easier to cope with tasks that require effort.

  • Before you make the effort (such as standing up), breathe in
  • Whilst you’re making the effort, breathe out hard
  • You may find it easier to breathe out hard whilst pursing your lips.

What is the best exercise for someone with COPD?

There’s no single best exercise for someone with COPD, but there are plenty of good options you can try.

  • Walking. If you’ve not exercised for a while, walking is a good starting point, as it’s free to do and you can move at your own pace. Try going out for a short walk at least once a day and gradually build up how far you go. You could incorporate walking with other activities, such as shopping or attending medical appointments.
  • Tai chi. Gentle forms of exercise such as tai chi are ideal for COPD, as they focus on slow and flowing movements. Tai chi can help tone your muscles and ease stress and anxiety.
  • Cycling. Cycling on an exercise bike at home or at a gym can help build up strength in your legs, aid circulation and boost stamina.
  • Weights. Using hand weights to do arm curls is good to strengthen the muscles in your arms and upper body. If you don’t have weights, use filled water bottles or tins of canned fruit or vegetables instead.
  • Stretching. Simple movements and stretches are beneficial too – try forward arm raises, calf raises, leg extensions, or moving from sitting to standing positions. If you have limited movement, chair yoga is an option too.

If you need motivation to exercise, find an exercise buddy – or a friend who you can go for a walk with. Having company can help distract you from the fact that you’re exercising and may boost your confidence if you’re concerned about getting out of breath whilst on your own.

Before starting a new exercise regime, especially if you use oxygen, speak to your medical practitioner for advice. They may even recommend a structured pulmonary rehabilitation exercise program if your symptoms are severe.

How do you strengthen your lungs with COPD?

Being active can help to strengthen your lungs. COPD-appropriate exercises can help boost the strength of your breathing muscles and improve your circulation and your heart. When your muscles are stronger, it will help your body to use oxygen more efficiently, so you won’t end up getting so breathless in your daily life.

Can COPD be reversed with exercise?

Exercise alone is not powerful enough to reverse lung damage. However, exercise has been shown to help relieve COPD symptoms and improve your quality of life, which is why it’s highly beneficial for anyone with COPD to do.

Exercise can help improve your physical stamina and endurance, plus it can strengthen the muscles you use to breathe. When these muscles are stronger, you won’t need to use so much oxygen, which will help reduce your breathlessness during physical activity.

The key is to not stop exercising when your COPD symptoms improve, as stopping your level of activity could worsen symptoms again.

How to exercise easier with COPD

You can help yourself to exercise easier with COPD by using the following tips:

  • Learn to breathe slowly using the pursed lip breathing method during physical activity. If you’re doing activities that need a lot of effort, breathing out hard may be beneficial.
  • Whilst you’re exercising, make sure you drink plenty of water to stay hydrated. Avoid non-caffeinated drinks as they’re better for keeping the mucus in your airways thinner.
  • If you use oxygen and your medical practitioner has given you the go-ahead to exercise, you can make things easier for yourself by using some extra-long tubing on your tank. This can help give you more space and capacity for moving around, without the worry of falling over your tank. It’s also beneficial to use smaller travel-sized oxygen tanks whilst you’re active.

When to stop exercising

If your COPD symptoms – such as wheezing, breathlessness, or coughing – seem worse than usual, stop exercising. Likewise, if you feel dizzy or lightheaded, stop and have a break. Although exercise is important, it’s not good to push yourself to exercise when you’re not feeling well or your COPD symptoms are especially bad. Be sensible and, if you have any concerns about your symptoms, consult a medical practitioner.

You may also be interested in our guides to managing your COPD and COPD treatment.


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