Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) refers to a group of progressive lung diseases that block air flow and make it harder for you to breathe. These lung diseases include emphysema, chronic bronchitis, and refractory non-reversible asthma. Symptoms of COPD include shortness of breath, frequent coughing, and you may have tightness in the chest. According to the COPD Foundation, this condition affects an estimated 24 million people in the United States.

Risk Factors for COPD

Several factors increase the risk of developing COPD, including environmental, lifestyle, and genetics. The risk for COPD is higher if you have a long history of smoking. About 90 percent of people with COPD have a history of smoking.

Long-term exposure to certain types of dust, chemicals, and fumes in the workplace can also increase the risk of this lung disease. But COPD can also develop in people who have never smoked or been exposed to pollutants. The disease may develop if you have a deficiency of the alpha-1 antitrypsin protein in your bloodstream. If your body lacks this protein, your white blood cells may attack your lungs, resulting in lung damage.

Your doctor can use a variety of tests to diagnose COPD, such as:

Treating COPD with Medication

If you're diagnosed with COPD and you’re a smoker, your doctor may recommend that you stop smoking as soon as possible. You should also avoid secondhand smoke. Both measures can slow the progression of the disease.

Medication

You’ll likely take prescription medication to control symptoms and improve your breathing. Different medications are available for the treatment of COPD, such as oral medications, bronchodilators, and inhaled corticosteroids. These medications help relax the muscles around your airway and reduce airway inflammation. Depending on the severity of your condition, you may need oxygen therapy to ensure there’s enough oxygen in your bloodstream.

How Exercise Helps Manage Symptoms of COPD

Taking your medication isn’t the only way to manage symptoms of COPD. Your doctor may also encourage regular activity or exercise. Some people with COPD don’t exercise or participate in a lot of physical activity because they don’t think they have the stamina. But exercise can improve shortness of breath and other COPD symptoms. In fact, exercise training is included in pulmonary rehabilitation programs. The key is learning safe and correct ways to exercise with the condition.

Because of breathing difficulties, you may be afraid to exert yourself and settle into a sedentary lifestyle. Inactivity may appear to reduce your shortness of breath and fatigue, but it can also cause a decline in cardiovascular function and muscle mass. If this happens, you may experience increased breathlessness each time you exert yourself. As a result, ordinary tasks like cleaning your house or playing with your kids may trigger coughing and wheezing. This can affect your quality of life, causing loss of independence and depression.

Exercise can’t reverse lung damage, but it can improve your physical endurance and strengthen your respiratory muscles. This can help you feel better physically and mentally, and you’ll be able to participate in physical activities without losing your breath or becoming fatigue.

Understand, however, that it takes time to strengthen your respiratory muscles. Even if you feel well and you have energy, you should never jump into an intense workout too soon. Start slow and gradually increase the intensity of your workouts — doing a little more each day. It's important to be consistent and establish a regular exercise routine. Some people make the mistake of stopping their workouts once they're breathing better. If you revert to a life of inactivity, shortness of breath may return.

Ideal Exercises for COPD

To help you stick with a regular exercise routine, choose exercises and activities that you enjoy. Safe and effective workouts you can do with COPD include aerobic and cardiovascular exercises. These exercises help strengthen the heart and lungs. Options include:

  • walking
  • jogging
  • jumping rope
  • bicycling
  • skating
  • low-impact aerobics
  • swimming

You should also add strength training into your routine. Hand weights or resistance bands can strengthen your muscles. Ideally, you should workout for 20 or 30 minutes three to four times a week. If you experience breathlessness while exercising, stop and rest for two to three minutes before continuing.

The Takeaway

While exercise can help with pulmonary rehabilitation and improve symptoms of COPD, talk with your doctor before starting a new exercise routine. Your doctor may provide additional guidelines regarding the best types of exercises based on the severity of your illness.

It's also important to speak with your doctor if you use oxygen with everyday activities. If you use oxygen while at rest, you’ll also need to use oxygen while exercising. Your doctor may offer instructions on how to increase your oxygen flow rate during workouts to ensure your body receives enough oxygen.