Studies have found that people with COPD who regularly exercise can improve their breathing, which in turn eases their symptoms and improves overall quality of life.
If you have COPD, you may be referred for pulmonary rehabilitation—a program that includes breathing exercises, counseling, education, and physical exercise.
People with COPD find that their lungs are unable to provide enough oxygen to perform simple daily activities such as walking, doing chores or getting around the house.
When you engage in aerobic exercise, your breathing and heart rate increase. As you breathe more, you take in more air and oxygen, which helps your body function more effectively.
Some people with COPD worry that exercise will make their breathing worse—however, in many cases the opposite is true. It's the lack of activity that can actually worsen breathing problems.
If you have any stage of COPD, you can benefit enormously from regular physical exercise. Even a small amount of activity can go a long way.
Exercise has many benefits for your physical health including:
- Relief of COPD symptoms
- Improved heart health
- Increased energy levels and stamina/endurance
- Improved circulation
- Lower blood pressure
- Greater bone strength
- Improved muscle strength and tone
- Increased flexibility and range of motion
- Maintenance of healthy body weight
Exercise also helps boost your emotional health as it can:
- Relieve stress, anxiety, and depression
- Improve your mood in general
- Help with body image—with exercise you look and feel better
- Increase quality of sleep
Types of Exercise for COPD
Before beginning any exercise program, it's important to check with your health care provider to determine whether it is right for you.
Your unique plan should address how much exercise is right for you, how often to exercise, and which activities you should avoid. A general recommendation is 20-30 minutes of exercise, 3-4 times per week.
Your own personal preferences are important as well. You may enjoy some forms of exercise more than others, and it's better to choose something that you know you can enjoy. That way you're more likely to stick to an exercise plan and therefore enjoy the benefits.
If you are new to exercise, you can begin slowly by simply raising and lowering your arms and legs while sitting down. You can then set further targets such as moving around your home more, or aiming to walk down the street and back.
Practiced regularly, the positive benefits of exercise are cumulative. This means that you'll be able to do more exercise surprisingly quickly once you get going.
There are three main types of exercise:
This type of exercise gets your heart rate up, strengthens your lungs, and improves the use of oxygen throughout your body. Aerobic exercise includes walking, aerobics or fitness classes, cycling (outdoors or on a stationary bike), water aerobics, skating, and jogging.
This involves using your muscles repeatedly to build strength. Pilates and weight training are obvious examples. Building upper body strength is particularly useful for people with COPD as it helps to build up the respiratory (breathing) muscles. However, heavy lifting is not recommended. Lighter weights can help to build muscle strength just as effectively as heavier weights.
Stretching helps to lengthen muscles and increase flexibility and range of motion. Stretching before and after exercising helps the muscles of the body prepare and cool down from exercise to avoid muscle strain or injury.
Breathing During Exercise
It's important to breathe slowly during exercise to save your breath and manage your energy levels. Refer to our breathing exercise guide for more information or ask your health care provider for information about breathing techniques.
Use the pursed lip breathing technique during exercise. This simply means breathing through lips that are pursed or puckered up—just as you would do if you were about to blow a candle out. Pursed lip breathing during physical activity promotes better lung function.
If you become breathless during exercise it's important to remember that the activity itself will not cause further damage to your lungs. Breathlessness during exercise is a sign that your body needs more oxygen. Pursed lip breathing will help to restore your body's oxygen levels more quickly.
Helpful Tips for Safe Exercise
1. Start off slowly—simple stretching exercises or a short walk around the block will do at first. Set small goals that are reasonable and achievable. Don't try to do too much too soon.
2. Don't overdo it. Always stop and rest for a few minutes if you become short of breath. Pace your activities and balance them out with periods of rest. Stop immediately if you experience any pain, particularly chest pain, dizziness, or light-headedness or you feel weak. Report any symptoms to your health care provider and never ignore pain.
3. Avoid exercises like sit-ups, push-ups, or isometric exercise that require your body to strain muscles against stationary objects or other muscles.
4. Don't exercise if you feel unwell or have a fever. Wait for symptoms to disappear and consult your health care provider before exercising again.
5. Avoid outdoor exercise when the weather is too hot, cold, or humid as these conditions can affect your breathing. Mall walking is a viable alternative if weather conditions are poor.
6. If you have to stop exercising for a few days due to illness, weather conditions, or other commitments, make sure to reduce your exercise level when you resume activity to build back up again gradually.
7. Avoid hot or cold baths, showers, and saunas after exercising.
8. Try to avoid bed rest after activity, as this will reduce your tolerance to exercise. If you feel tired or breathless sit for a few minutes and practice your breathing exercises to recover.
9. Stay positive. It's easy to become despondent if you set yourself targets that require too much effort too soon. You'll soon build up your stamina and endurance levels.
10. Always discuss your exercise plans with your health care provider and continue to report your progress.