Breathing exercises can help you manage chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) symptoms like shortness of breath. Exercises to try include pursed lip breathing and the huff cough.

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a health condition that affects an individual’s ability to breathe well. It’s often associated with other conditions, such as emphysema and chronic bronchitis.

Symptoms include:

  • wheezing
  • chest tightness
  • shortness of breath
  • large amounts of mucus that collect in the lungs

These can worsen with time, but practicing breathing exercises can help you manage them. When you practice regularly, breathing exercises can help you exert yourself less during daily activities. They can also potentially aid in your return to exercise, making you feel more energetic overall.

Read on to learn about these five exercises that can be especially useful for people with COPD:

  • pursed lip breathing
  • coordinated breathing
  • deep breathing
  • huff cough
  • diaphragmatic breathing
Illustration showing the three steps of pursed lip breathing: Inhaling, pursing lips, and exhaling.

Pursed lip breathing has a range of benefits, including:

  • reducing shortness of breath
  • increasing airflow to the lungs
  • helping with relaxation
  • releasing air trapped in the lungs.

Practicing this technique 4 to 5 times daily can help. Here’s how to practice pursed lip breathing:

  • While keeping your mouth closed, take a deep breath through your nose, counting to 2. Follow this pattern by repeating in your head, “Inhale, 1, 2.” The breath doesn’t have to be deep. A typical inhale will do.
  • Put your lips together like you’re starting to whistle or blow out candles on a birthday cake. This is known as “pursing” your lips.
  • While keeping your lips pursed, slowly breathe out by counting to 4. Don’t try to force the air out. Breathe slowly through your mouth.

Exercise tip: Pursed lip breathing is best for performing strenuous activities, such as climbing stairs, and can help you increase your physical activity levels.

Feeling short of breath can cause anxiety that makes you hold your breath. To prevent this from occurring, you can practice coordinated breathing using these two steps:

  • Inhale through your nose before beginning an exercise.
  • While pursing your lips, breathe out through your mouth during the most strenuous part of the exercise. An example could be when curling upward on a bicep curl.

Exercise tip: Coordinated breathing can be performed when you’re exercising or feeling anxious.

Deep breathing prevents air from getting trapped in your lungs, which can cause you to feel short of breath. As a result, you can breathe in more fresh air.

Here’s how to practice deep breathing:

  • Sit or stand with your elbows slightly back. This allows your chest to expand more fully.
  • Inhale deeply through your nose.
  • Hold your breath as you count to 5.
  • Release the air via a slow, deep exhale, through your nose, until you feel your inhaled air has been released.

Exercise tip: It’s best to do this exercise with other daily breathing exercises that can be performed for 10 minutes at a time, 3 to 4 times per day.

When you have COPD, mucus can build up more easily in your lungs. The huff cough is a breathing exercise designed to help you cough up mucus effectively without making you feel too tired.

Here’s how to practice the huff cough:

  • Place yourself in a comfortable seated position. Inhale through your mouth, slightly deeper than you would when taking a normal breath.
  • Activate your stomach muscles to blow the air out in three even breaths while making the sounds “ha, ha, ha.” Imagine you’re blowing onto a mirror to cause it to steam.

Exercise tip: A huff cough should be less tiring than a traditional cough, and it can keep you from feeling worn out when coughing up mucus.

The diaphragm is the main muscle involved in breathing.

People with COPD tend to rely more on the accessory muscles of the neck, shoulders, and back to breathe rather than on the diaphragm.

Diaphragmatic or abdominal breathing helps to retrain this muscle to work more effectively. Here’s how to do it:

  • While sitting or lying down, with your shoulders relaxed, put a hand on your chest and place the other hand on your stomach.
  • Take a breath in through your nose for 2 seconds, feeling your stomach move outward. You’re doing the activity correctly if your stomach moves more than your chest.
  • Purse your lips and breathe out slowly through your mouth, pressing lightly on your stomach. This will enhance your diaphragm’s ability to release air.
  • Repeat the exercise as you can.

Exercise tip: This technique can be more complicated than the other exercises, so it’s best for a person with a little more practice under their belt. If you’re having difficulty, talk with your doctor or respiratory therapist.

Breathing exercises can often help you manage COPD symptoms such as shortness of breath and chest tightness.

Slow, focused exercises such as pursed lip and deep breathing can also help you recover from exercise or activity and generally improve your day-to-date quality of life.