How Exercise Can Help COPD Patients

It can be challenging and even intimidating to think about exercising if you have chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Effects like shortness of breath, weakness, and lack of energy can make activity daunting or even seem ill-advised. But exercise is beneficial to your health when you COPD, and it's an important lifestyle strategy that you need to incorporate into your routine as part of the management of this disease.

Working with your medical team and following their instructions, you can find and implement safe exercises that can get you well on your way to living a healthier lifestyle and feeling better with COPD.

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Exercise can lead to physical, emotional, and cognitive benefits for everyone. In terms of specific benefits for COPD, physical activity can make you feel better day-to-day, possibly prevent a decline in your condition, and help prevent COPD complications.

  • Moderate and consistent physical exertion trains your body to utilize oxygen more efficiently and build muscle—increasing your strength and energy level and reducing fatigue.
  • With COPD, you can be overweight and malnourished at the same time due to nutritional deficiencies. Weight loss is one of the obvious benefits of exercise.
  • Exercise can decrease your risk of infection, which can lead to COPD exacerbations, hospitalizations, and a long-term worsening of your health.
  • Exercise may also help you stop smoking, which is extremely important when you have COPD. Research shows that physical activity can reduce nicotine withdrawal symptoms, cigarette cravings, negative mood, and weight gain when you are cutting back or quitting.

People with COPD who walk on a regular basis are able to increase walking distance and shortness of breath.

Quality of Life

Beyond the physical benefits of exercise when you have COPD, there are other aspects of your life that can be improved as well:

  • Depression and other mood disorders, which are concerns to watch for when you have COPD 
  • Cognitive function: COPD can lead to a sense of mental cloudiness due to problems like low oxygen, sleep disturbances, and a decrease in challenging activities if you are no longer working.
  • Socialization: Isolation is a common struggle for many COPD patients.

Types of Exercises

The basics of a safe and effective exercise program include choosing an exercise you will enjoy. There are three types of exercises that you can incorporate into your exercise routine when you have COPD.

Flexibility Exercises

Flexibility exercises are designed to help you improve your range of motion, posture, and breathing. You should do these before and after exercising.

Flexibility exercises include stretches of your neck, shoulders, and calves. Yoga is a form of flexibility exercise that may be beneficial.

Endurance Exercises

Improving your endurance helps improve the function of your lungs, as well as your heart and blood vessels. In the long run, these are the best types of exercises to help you withstand activities of daily living with COPD.

Endurance exercises (often called cardiovascular endurance) include walking, biking, and swimming, among others.

Strength Training

Help build and strengthen your muscles with strength training. Strong muscles will allow you to perform daily activities, such as housework or mowing the lawn, with less effort.

Examples of strength training include lifting weights, bodyweight exercises and working with stretchy bands.

Walking is a great exercise to start with because it incorporates all of these features. You can adjust your pace, distance, and time spent waking so that you will safely and gradually improve. Walking can also improve your blood pressure, weight, joint health, and mood.

Before You Begin

In order to obtain lasting results from exercise, it's important to be consistent. You can keep up your momentum by selecting exercises that are both safe and sufficiently challenging.

Before beginning any type of exercise program, it is important to speak with your healthcare providers to make sure the program you choose is safe. If your condition prevents you from doing certain types of exercises, your healthcare provider or physical therapist can discuss possible alternatives that may better suit you. If you are lost on what program to follow, they may be able to make suggestions or refer you to an exercise professional who can.

Your healthcare provider will also be able to tell you if you should use oxygen when you exercise.

Then, when you first start to exercise, listen to your body to determine the level of exertion that feels safe and comfortable for you. You may quickly become fatigued, and that's to be expected. As your endurance level builds, you will be able to exercise for longer periods of time and with less effort. Gradually push yourself while avoiding overexertion.

Breathing During Exercise

Understanding how to properly breathe during exercise will improve your chances of success and sticking with a program. Doing pursed-lip breathing during exercise will help you maintain adequate oxygen levels and reduce shortness of breath.

In addition, always try to exhale, or breathe out, during the most difficult part of the exercise, and inhale, or breathe in, during the easiest part of the exercise. For example, exhale when you raise your arms above your head and inhale as you lower them.

The dyspnea scale measures shortness of breath and ranges from 0 to 10, with 10 being the most severe. You can use the dyspnea scale during exercise to determine how hard you are working to breathe so you can pace yourself accordingly.

  • If you have mild shortness of breath, you are at a level 1.
  • If your shortness of breath is moderate, you are at a level 3.
  • You are at a level 5 if you feel that your shortness of breath is severe.
  • If you cannot catch your breath at all, you are at a level 10.

Recognizing Signs of Overexertion

While exercise is strongly encouraged, it's important to know your limits. Overexertion can be harmful to your health.

Stop exercising and call for help if you notice any of the following signs:

  • Unusual or an increased level of shortness of breath
  • Chest discomfort or chest pain
  • Burning, pressure, tightness or heaviness in your chest
  • Unusual pain in your jaw, neck, shoulders, arms or back
  • A racing feeling in your heart
  • Heart palpitations (feeling that your heart is skipping a beat)
  • Lightheadedness or dizziness
  • Nausea
  • Feeling more tired than usual
  • Unusual pain in the joints

Staying Motivated

It's easy to get discouraged or bored with exercise. Talk to your healthcare provider or physical therapist about alternating or advancing your exercises if you notice that you are losing your motivation.

You may also find it helpful to:

  • Set goals and keep track of progress: Whether yours are to breathe better or rely less on others, identifying reachable goals will help you get the most out of your exercise. Writing them down and keeping a record of what you're doing to achieve them can also help inspire you when you feel discouraged.
  • Find an exercise buddy: Being accountable to an activity partner can help bridge the gap on those days you're tempted to give up. And making connections with people through exercise can alleviate the isolation that is often part of this chronic illness.

A Word From Verywell

Living with COPD involves some adjustments, and making sure you have an exercise routine is part of that. While physical activity can be challening, it can have beneficial effects that are impossible to achieve with medical treatment alone.

Work with your medical team to maximize your abilities and prevent complications. If you prefer exercising in a supervised setting, see if you qualify for pulmonary rehabilitation. These programs can teach you about your lung function and how to exercise (and do other activities) with less shortness of breath.

7 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.
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Additional Reading

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