Pulmonary rehabilitation involves following an individualized treatment plan that may include physical exercise, breathing techniques, nutritional education, and counseling.

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) refers to a group of diseases characterized by lung damage and breathing issues. Emphysema and chronic bronchitis are the two most common varieties of COPD.

Rehab can help reduce your COPD symptoms, improve your quality of life, and reduce the risk of more serious lung, heart, or respiratory problems down the road.

Here’s what to know about the rehab and how it can help.

Pulmonary rehab is designed to improve your health and quality of life if you live with COPD. Without treatment, the disease may become life threatening.

After doing an assessment with a team of healthcare professionals, your recommended treatment plan will likely involve:

These steps are designed to help maintain your physical and psychological health. They can also help you stick to long-term health goals.

Pulmonary rehab exercises may involve:

  • Exercise training: This typically involves endurance, flexibility, and strength training exercises. Cycling and walking are the most commonly recommended endurance exercises. Strength training may require weights or resistance bands. Your exercise and training load should increase over time with the goal of improving muscle strength and aerobic capacity.
  • Breath training: Breath training may involve yogic breathing, pursed lip breathing, computer-assisted breathing programs, and other tools and techniques designed to help you breathe more easily and reduce stress.
  • Nutritional support: Nutritional counseling involves guidance to ensure that you maintain a well-rounded diet. Weight and muscle mass loss are common in later COPD stages, but a healthy rehab program can help restore your physical health.
  • Counseling and education: Counseling and education can help you deal with the stress and emotions that may come with COPD. Many with COPD also have anxiety or depression, but these conditions can be treated via therapeutic support. They’ll also be guided to understand how to take medications, manage flare-ups, and perform day-to-day tasks in a healthier and easier way.
  • Smoking cessation: Since smoking contributes to the majority of COPD cases, quitting smoking is often integral to the treatment plan. It involves smoking cessation therapy with help from positive reinforcement.

Since there’s currently no known cure for COPD, pulmonary rehab can’t help patients overcome the disease altogether. However, there are several benefits of keeping up with the rehab:

  • Builds strength: Research has shown improvements in maximal exercise capacity and strength in people with various lung conditions, including after a lung transplant.
  • Increases aerobic capacity: Regular high intensity exercise helps people increase aerobic metabolism, which helps them tolerate more exercise before experiencing fatigue or shortness of breath.
  • Reduces anxiety and depression: Research shows that rehab can lead to a decrease in anxiety and depression in those with COPD, thanks in part to support from specialists like psychologists, therapists, and social workers.
  • Increases longevity: Pulmonary rehab is associated with better survival outcomes. In a 2023 review, researchers noted an association between rehab started within 3 months of being discharged from the hospital and a lower risk of mortality within 1 year.
  • Quality of life: Several studies have found a link between pulmonary rehab and an improved quality of life (based on assessment tests like the Chronic Respiratory Disease Questionnaire).

How long is pulmonary rehabilitation for COPD?

Pulmonary rehab typically consists of 2–3 weekly sessions over a period of several weeks to months.

After that, a maintenance plan is still necessary to maintain results. Without continuing to implement some of the exercises into a regular routine, benefits can diminish within 6–12 months, a 2023 review suggests.

Rehab is essentially the first step toward making healthy lifestyle changes that last.

Does insurance or Medicare cover pulmonary rehab?

Many insurance providers will fully or partially cover pulmonary rehab, so check with yours to find out.

Medicare also covers the program in some cases.

How can I find a good pulmonary rehab center?

If you’re interested in finding a quality pulmonary rehab center, a GP can give you a referral.

In the United States, other specific resources include:

In the event that there’s not a rehab program in your area, following a regular exercise regimen and implementing healthy lifestyle changes can still have a profound effect on your day-to-day life. Your doctor may be able to provide you with the assistance you need to live well.

And since walking is one of the most common exercises recommended to those in pulmonary rehab, starting with regular strolls may significantly improve your condition.

A pulmonary rehab program typically consists of exercise training, breathing exercises, education, nutritional support, and counseling. It benefits those with COPD by increasing exercise capacity, boosting strength and breath capacity, increasing longevity, and improving one’s day-to-day life.

The main goal of pulmonary rehab is to instill healthy lifestyle changes that last. If there’s not a program near you, a doctor may still be able to assist you in implementing new strategies to live more fully and well.