Breathing Exercises

People with COPD commonly experience symptoms such as coughing and shortness of breath. Living with these symptoms can be extremely stressful and, unfortunately, stress and anxiety can exacerbate breathing problems, leading to a vicious cycle.

According to the Denver-based organization National Jewish Health—a leading research center specializing in respiratory, cardiac, and immune disorders—breathing techniques combined with exercise can “minimize shortness of breath and assure adequate oxygen to your working muscles.”

If you have COPD, these techniques can help you to manage the symptoms of breathlessness, promote relaxation, and release anxiety.

Breathing Exercises for COPD

Breathing exercises help people with COPD to breathe more effectively and efficiently.  Managing your symptoms successfully can provide a psychological boost as well —knowing that you can control breathlessness will help you to feel more confident about living with COPD. When practiced every day, these breathing exercises can help if:

  • You’re generally short of breath
  • You’re actively finding it difficult to breathe
  • Breathlessness occurs suddenly, perhaps due to anxiety or a panic attack

A study carried out at Tehran University of Medical Sciences, School of Medicine found that breathing techniques have also been shown to reduce symptoms of fatigue in people with COPD.

How to Perform Breathing Exercises

Practicing breathing exercises on a daily basis daily can help to improve your quality of life in several beneficial ways. When practicing breathing techniques it’s essential to relax and perform the exercises slowly and gently. Forcing your breath may make the problem worse. If you begin to feel tight-chested, use your inhaler. Most importantly, don’t hold your breath—your body needs the oxygen.

Positions for Breathing Exercises

The best positions are those that require minimum effort. You’ll waste energy and oxygen if your body is tense. Keep these tips in mind: 

1. Sitting uses less energy than standing. Sit in a high-backed chair. Don’t slouch—lean forward, supporting your forearms on your knees.

2. If standing is more comfortable for you, try leaning forward from the hips, supporting your forearms on something at a suitable height. For example, a sturdy, high-backed chair, a kitchen work-surface, or a garden wall. Make sure that anything you support yourself with is solid and won’t move. When you’re out and about, a walking frame can help to support your body.

3. Rest your head and arms on a pillow on a table if you feel tired or you’re very short of breath.

4. If you need to lie down, lie on your back with your knees raised. Support your knees by placing a pillow underneath them and use a pillow to elevate your head. Or, lie on your side with your back straight and elevate your head with a pillow, placing a pillow between your knees.

Benefits of Pursed Lip Breathing

According to the Cleveland Clinic Medical Center, pursed lip breathing “is one of the simplest ways to control shortness of breath.” When practiced regularly, this way of breathing will become natural and will help you cope. It can also be used to improve breathing during strenuous activities such as climbing stairs, lifting, or bending. Pursed lip breathing can help people with COPD in the following ways:

  • Relieve shortness of breath
  • Encourage relaxation
  • Relieve anxiety caused by breathlessness
  • Slow down the breathing rate
  • Move old or trapped air from the lungs and make way for new air to enter
  • Decrease the effort it takes to breathe

Pursed Lip Breathing Technique

1. Relax you head, neck, and shoulders.

2. Keeping your mouth closed, breathe in normally through your nose for a count of two—don’t take a deep breath.

3. Purse your lips as if you were about to whistle or blow out a candle.

4. Breathe out gently and slowly, keeping your lips pursed for a count of four.

Diaphragmatic Breathing

The diaphragm sits at the base of the lungs and facilitates breathing.  In people with COPD, the diaphragm can become weakened and may not work efficiently. Diaphragmatic breathing teaches you the correct way to use your diaphragm while breathing.

Directing the breath deep into the abdomen stretches the diaphragm and helps to relax the tightened muscles that make breathing more difficult. When practiced for five to ten minutes, two to four times per day, this exercise can help to strengthen the diaphragm and decrease your body’s demand for oxygen. This, in turn, helps you to slow down your breathing and use less energy and effort while breathing. To try diaphragmatic breathing:

1. Lie on your back in bed or on a flat surface. Support your head with pillows. Bend your knees (you can put pillows under your knees to support your legs). You can also practice this exercise sitting in a chair. Sit comfortably your knees bent, relaxing your head, neck, and shoulders.

2. Put one hand on your stomach, just below your ribcage. Put the other hand on your upper chest. This helps you to feel your diaphragm moving as you breathe.

3. Breathe in through your nose slowly. Feel your stomach expand. If you’re breathing correctly, the hand on your chest should stay still.

4. Allow your stomach muscles to contract inwards by tightening them as you breathe out. Breathe out using the pursed lip breathing technique. The hand on your chest should stay as still as possible throughout this exercise.

More Breathing Exercises

The following simple breathing exercises can be used in any combination. Continue to use the pursed lip technique throughout.

General Breath Control

If you find yourself generally short of breath:

  • Breathe in gently through your nose.
  • Breathe out through your nose and mouth.
  • Focus on feeling calmer each time you breathe out.

Breathing When You’re Active—Paced Breathing

This is a useful exercise for when you’re walking or climbing stairs. Adapt the rhythm of your breathing to the steps you take or to how breathless you feel. For example:

  • Breathe in on one stair or when you take one step. Breathe out with the next.
  • Breathe in for one stair/step and breathe out for the next two stairs/steps.
  • Breathe in for one stair/step and breathe out for the next three stairs/steps, etc.

Panic Attacks/Hyperventilation

If anxiety affects your breathing:

  • At the first sign of panic, breathe out. Empty your lungs as much as possible so that you’re able to take a deep breath.
  • Breathe through your nose; this will automatically slow down your breathing.
  • Count your breath to slow down your breathing. Try to breathe out for one count more than you breathe in, but don’t hold your breath.