Breathing Exercises for COPD

Strengthen your diaphragm, catch your breath, and clear your airways

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If you have chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), you're likely all too familiar with two bothersome (and sometimes distressing) symptoms: shortness of breath (dyspnea) and chronic coughing due to the build-up of mucus in your airways. Medication can help, of course, but there also are breathing exercises and techniques for dealing with these symptoms. In fact, certain breathing exercises—particularly those that help strengthen the diaphragm—may offer benefits beyond bringing in-the-moment relief.

According to the American Lung Association, in COPD:

"Stale air can build up in the lungs, leaving less room for the diaphragm to contract and bring in fresh oxygen. With the diaphragm not working to full capacity, the body starts to use other muscles in the neck, back, and chest for breathing. This translates into lower oxygen levels, and less reserve for exercise and activity. If practiced regularly, breathing exercises can help rid the lungs of accumulated stale air, increase oxygen levels, and get the diaphragm to return to its job of helping you breathe."

You may find any (or all) of the breathing exercises for COPD that follow to be helpful in managing your symptoms. Just be sure to check with your healthcare provider before you try them.

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Exercises for Shortness of Breath

Dyspnea, which literally means "air hunger," can be scary: Primarily due to lack of oxygen, it can feel as if you're suffocating and be brought on by anything from certain scents to pet dander to temperature extremes.

Anxiety is a common side effect of dyspnea, and it may cause you to hold your breath (what's known as the dyspnea cycle).

The following breathing exercises will become second nature if you practice them daily. That way you'll be able to use them calmly and effectively when you find yourself gasping for breath.

Pursed-Lip Breathing

This exercise can be performed any time you feel as if you can't catch your breath, but it's especially helpful during physical exertion. When you experience shortness of breath during activity, it simply means your body needs more oxygen. Slowing your rate of breathing and concentrating on exhaling through pursed lips will restore oxygen to your system more rapidly.

  1. Relax your head and shoulders.
  2. Keeping your mouth closed, breathe in through your nose while slowly counting to two. This warms, moisturizes, and filters the air.
  3. Purse your lips, as if to blow out a candle. Exhale, without forcing the air out, to a slow count of four. If two counts in and four counts out doesn't feel comfortable or natural, set your own pace; just make sure that you take twice as long to exhale as to inhale (e.g., three counts in and six counts out).
  4. Repeat.

Benefits of Pursed Lip Breathing

According to the COPD Foundation, this technique:

  • Slows breathing
  • Keeps airways open longer to allow the escape of stale air trapped in the lungs
  • Reduces the work of breathing
  • Makes it possible to exercise or be physically active for longer
  • Improves the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide

Deep Breathing

Shortness of breath also can result when air becomes trapped in the lungs. Deep breathing is one way to prevent this.

  1. Sit or lie down in a comfortable position.
  2. Place one hand on your chest and the other on your belly, just below your ribcage.
  3. Breathe in slowly through your nose, directing the air downward so that your belly rises but your chest remains relatively still. 
  4. Breathe out through your mouth, feeling your stomach relax toward your spine as the air leaves your lungs.

Techniques for Clearing Mucus

Increased mucus production, a common symptom of COPD, can contribute to shortness of breath, trigger chronic coughing, and put you at risk of infection if the mucus isn't cleared.

Controlled Coughing

Coughing is the body's way of clearing mucus from the lungs. But when coughing isn't controlled, it can make things worse, causing your airways to close and trapping mucus in the airways.

Controlled coughing loosens and moves mucus, and it's most effective when done after using an inhaler or other medicine, according to University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Medicine and Public Health.

  1. Sit on the edge of a chair with both feet on the floor, leaning forward slightly.
  2. Breathe in slowly through your nose and fold your arms across your belly.
  3. As you exhale, lean forward and press your arms into your belly. Cough two or three times with your mouth slightly open. Make the coughs short and sharp.
  4. Spit out the mucus that rose up from your throat and into your mouth.
  5. Take a break and repeat as needed.
  6. Wash your hands.

If the mucus you bring up is green, brown, pink, or bloody, contact your healthcare provider. This may indicate the presence of infection or other problems.

Huff Cough

The American Lung Association suggests this version of controlled coughing for bringing up mucus:

  1. Sit in a comfortable position.
  2. Inhale a bit more deeply than normal.
  3. Using your stomach muscles, blow out the air in three even breaths while saying “ha, ha, ha," as if blowing onto a mirror to make it steam.

Postural Drainage

Postural drainage involves lying down in different positions on a bed or on the floor in order to encourage mucus to drain from the lungs. Your chest will need to be lower than your hips so that gravity can help the mucus move, so you will need several pillows to prop up your lower half.

It's best to practice postural drainage on an empty stomach, a half an hour after using an inhaler. Hold each position for five minutes. If you need to cough, sit up and do controlled coughing.

To drain mucus from the front of your lungs:

  1. Lie on your back. Place two pillows under your hips and a smaller one under your head.
  2. With one hand on your belly and the other on your chest, breathe in, pushing your belly out as far as possible.
  3. When you breathe out, you should be able to feel the hand on your belly move inward.

To drain the sides of your lungs:

  1. Lie on one side. Place two or three pillows under your hips. Use a small pillow under your head.
  2. Use the breathing technique described above.
  3. After 5 minutes, switch sides.

To drain the back of your lungs:

  1. Lie on your stomach with two or three pillows under your hips and a small pillow under your head. Place your arms by your head.
  2. Breathe as above.

A Word From Verywell

Breathing exercises and other techniques can't take the place of medication, oxygen therapy, or other measures for managing COPD symptoms, but they may be helpful. Talk to your healthcare provider about any exercise you'd like to try before adding it to your COPD management plan.

4 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Breathing Exercises. American Lung Association. June 27, 2019

  2. Yohannes AM, Junkes-cunha M, Smith J, Vestbo J. Management of Dyspnea and Anxiety in Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease: A Critical Review. J Am Med Dir Assoc. 2017;18(12):1096.e1-1096.e17. doi:10.1016/j.jamda.2017.09.007

  3. Fahy JV, Dickey BF. Airway mucus function and dysfunctionN Engl J Med. 2010;363(23):2233–2247. doi:10.1056/NEJMra0910061

  4. COPD: Clearing Your Lungs. University of Wisconsin. School of Medicine and Public Health. Health Information. June 9, 2019

Additional Reading

By Deborah Leader, RN
 Deborah Leader RN, PHN, is a registered nurse and medical writer who focuses on COPD.