Exercise and COPD

Quincy AdamCOPD Exercise, COPD Lifestyle, Exercise

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When you struggle to breathe, the idea of exercise can seem daunting, if not impossible. However, studies have found that regular exercise may make it easier to breathe and improve the symptoms of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)1.

The American College of Sports Medicine attributes a lack of physical activity to increased disability in COPD2. Shortness of breath already causes many people who suffer from COPD to lead more sedentary lifestyles. Unfortunately, this leads to the deterioration in functional lung capacity, making it even more difficult to go about even basic daily activities.

The Benefits of Staying Active with COPD

You may feel that exercising with COPD is a mistake, but working out and COPD actually go hand-in-hand when it comes to managing your disease.

For people with COPD, exercise may:

  • Improve circulation
  • Strengthen respiratory muscles
  • Help the body use oxygen more efficiently
  • Increase energy levels
  • Improve endurance
  • Improve symptoms of COPD
  • Lower blood pressure
  • Help achieve or maintain a healthier weight

Along with those benefits, exercise has also been found to reduce stress and anxiety. Staying active with COPD may also help you sleep better and feel more positive about yourself and your condition.

How to Exercise with COPD

The American Lung Association recommends participating in a pulmonary rehabilitation program to help rebuild your strength and enjoy a better quality of life3 . These programs educate you on exercise and COPD so that you can learn to work out safely and reduce your shortness of breath while being more active.

Pulmonary rehabilitation programs are usually run out of hospitals and use the expertise of medical professionals, including doctors, nurses, respiratory/physical therapists and registered dieticians. These specialists work together to come up with a plan based on your needs so that you can improve your symptoms. Other medical conditions, such as high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease, are also taken into consideration when you participate in a pulmonary rehabilitation program.

The Cleveland Clinic4 recommends that people with COPD practice three basic types of exercise, which include:

  • Stretching: This is a no-impact activity that helps to lengthen the muscles and improve your range of motion. Stretching before and after you exercise will help prepare your muscles for exercise and also help prevent straining or injury.
  • Aerobic: Activities such as walking, low-impact aerobics and cycling (stationary or road bike) can strengthen your heart and lungs, and improve the way your body uses oxygen. Regular aerobic activity improves your endurance and helps you breathe better.
  • Strengthening: Strengthening exercises involve contracting your muscles until they become tired. Though strengthening all muscles is beneficial, people with COPD will especially benefit from upper body strengthening exercises that improve respiratory muscle strength.

Though everyone is different, gradually building up to 20 to 30 minutes of exercise three or four days a week is ideal. Your doctor or pulmonary rehabilitation team can help you choose the best exercises and work with you to come up with an exercise schedule that best suits your lifestyle and specific needs.

Things to Remember

Feeling short of breath can make you feel anxious and is one reason why so many people with COPD shy away from exercise. It’s important to remember that regular exercise has been shown to improve 5,6  and is an integral part of managing the disease.

Exercise will make you short of breath, and this is normal. You may worry that being active will harm your lungs, but the shortness of breath experienced with physical activity is simply an indicator that your body needs more oxygen because it is working harder. Try to stay calm and focus on slowing your breathing to save your breath. Inhale through your nose with your mouth closed and exhale through pursed lips.

Talk openly with your doctor or respiratory therapist about your concerns so that together you can come up with a safe activity plan with which you’re comfortable. A program that includes stretching, strengthening and aerobic workouts may enable you to enjoy a more active life and fewer symptoms.


Casaburi R1, Porszasz J, Burns MR, Carithers ER, Chang RS, Cooper CB. Physiologic benefits of exercise training in rehabilitation of patients with severe chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Am J Respir Crit Care Med. 1997 May;155(5):1541-51.http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9154855. Accessed March 15, 2015.Rudolph H. Dressendorfer, Ph.D., P.T., FACSM (Chair) Mark J. Haykowsky, Ph.D., Neil Eves, M.Sc. Exercise for Persons with Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease. American College of Sports Medicine. https://www.acsm.org/docs/current-comments/exerciseforpersonswithcopd.pdf. Accessed March 13, 2015.

3 American Lung Association. Pulmonary Rehabilitation. American Lung Association. http://www.lung.org/lung-disease/copd/treating-copd/pulmonary-rehabilitation.html. Accessed March 13, 2015.

Cleveland Clinic. COPD Exercise & Activity Guidelines. Cleveland Clinic http://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/diseases_conditions/hic_Understanding_COPD/hic_Coping_with_COPD/hic_COPD_Exercise_and_Activity_Guidelines. Accessed March 13, 2015.

Casaburi R1, Porszasz J, Burns MR, Carithers ER, Chang RS, Cooper CB. Physiologic benefits of exercise training in rehabilitation of patients with severe chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Am J Respir Crit Care Med. 1997 May;155(5):1541-51.http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9154855. Accessed March 15, 2015.

6 Rudolph H. Dressendorfer, Ph.D., P.T., FACSM (Chair) Mark J. Haykowsky, Ph.D., Neil Eves, M.Sc. Exercise for Persons with Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease. American College of Sports Medicine. https://www.acsm.org/docs/current-comments/exerciseforpersonswithcopd.pdf. Accessed March 13, 2015.