Exercising may seem like a challenge when you have trouble breathing from COPD. Yet, regular physical activity can actually strengthen your respiratory muscles, improve your circulation, facilitate more efficient oxygen use, and decrease your COPD symptoms, according to the Cleveland Clinic.
A study in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine showed that physical activity can help protect against COPD development and progression and slow lung function decline. The study showed that higher levels of exercise result in greater benefits. Researchers found that active smokers with moderate to high physical activity had a reduced risk of developing COPD when compared to a less active group.
Different types of exercise can help COPD patients in different ways, for example:
- Cardiovascular exercise involves steady aerobic activity that uses large muscle groups and strengthens your heart and lungs. This type of exercise improves your body’s ability to use oxygen. Over time, you’ll experience decreased heart rate and blood pressure and your heart won’t need to work as hard during physical activities, which will improve your breathing.
- Strengthening or resistance exercises use repeated muscle contractions to break down and then rebuild muscle. Resistance exercises for the upper body can help build strength in your respiratory muscles.
- Stretching and flexibility exercises like yoga and Pilates can enhance coordination and breathing.
Despite these benefits, it’s important to use caution when exercising with COPD. Increasing your level of physical activity can trigger symptoms like shortness of breath. Talk to your doctor before you begin an exercise program. They can help you determine:
- What type of exercise you should do, and which activities to avoid
- How much exercise you can safely do each day, and how often you should exercise every week
- How to schedule medications or other treatments in relation to your workout schedule
When exercising with COPD, it’s important not to overdo it. Increase the amount of time you exercise very gradually. As a precursor to an exercise program, the National Emphysema Foundation (NEF) recommends practicing simply coordinating your breathing with daily activities. This can help strengthen postural muscles used for standing, sitting, and walking. From this base, you can begin to incorporate cardiovascular exercise into your routine.
The Cleveland Clinic suggests starting out modest with your exercise goals and building up slowly to a 20 to 30-minute session, three to four times each week. To do this, you can begin with a short walk and see how far you can go before you become breathless. Whenever you start to feel short of breath, stop and rest. Over time, you can set specific goals to increase your walking distance. Try an increase of 10 feet per day as your first goal.
Use a Rated Perceived Exertion (RPE) scale to measure the intensity of your exercise. This scale allows you to use numbers from 0 to 10 to rate the level of difficulty of a physical activity. For example, sitting in a chair would rate as level 0, or inactive. Taking an exercise stress test or performing a very difficult physical challenge would rate as level 10. On the RPE scale, level 3 is considered “moderate” and level 4 is “somewhat heavy.” The Cleveland Clinic recommends exercising between levels 3 and 4 most of the time if you have COPD. Be aware that when you’re using this scale, you should consider your level of fatigue and individual factors such as shortness of breath to prevent over-exertion.
Shortness of breath while working out means your body needs more oxygen. You can restore oxygen to your system more rapidly by slowing down your breathing. To breathe more slowly, focus on inhaling through your nose with your mouth closed, then exhaling through pursed lips. This will warm, moisturize, and filter the air you breathe and allow for more complete lung action. To help decrease the rate of your breathing while you exercise, try making your exhalations twice as long as your inhalations; for example, if you inhale for two seconds, then exhale for four seconds.
Your doctor may recommend a pulmonary rehabilitation program if you have difficulty breathing while you exercise. These programs offer medically supervised group exercise, combined with a disease management and education component to specifically address your challenges. According to the American Lung Association (ALA), rehabilitation can help improve your lung function and reduce symptoms, enabling you to perform daily activities with less discomfort and live a more active life.
While physical activity is an important part of managing your COPD, The Cleveland Clinic recommends taking the following precautions to ensure safe exercise:
- Don’t work out in extreme temperatures. Hot, cold, or humid conditions can affect your circulation, making breathing more difficult, and possibly causing chest pain.
- Avoid hilly courses, as exercising on hills may lead to over-exertion. If you must traverse a hilly area, slow your pace and monitor your heart rate closely, walking or stopping if needed.
- Be sure to exhale when lifting any moderately heavy object. In general, try to avoid lifting or pushing heavy objects.
- If you become short of breath, dizzy, or weak during any activity, stop exercising and rest. If symptoms continue, call your doctor. They might recommend changes to your medications, diet, or fluid intake before you continue your program.
- Ask your doctor for guidance regarding your exercise program after you start new medications, as medicine can affect your response to activity.
Regular exercise has special challenges for those living with COPD, but the benefits can outweigh the difficulties. By learning proper techniques and using precaution, physical activity can become one of the most important tools in your arsenal to manage your condition.