If you have acute bronchitis, a temporary condition, resting may be the best thing for you. If you have chronic bronchitis, a long-term condition, you may want to establish a go-to exercise program to count on for life.

Acute bronchitis is an infection that causes inflammation of the bronchial tubes. These tubes carry air to your lungs, so the infection can make it hard to breathe. Other symptoms include:

  • dry or phlegmy cough
  • chest pain
  • fatigue
  • shortness of breath

Acute bronchitis typically lasts from three to 10 days. It usually resolves without the need for antibiotics. However, you may have a lingering dry cough for several weeks due to the inflammation. For most people, acute bronchitis isn’t serious. For people with compromised immune systems, small children, and the elderly, bronchitis can cause complications such as pneumonia or respiratory failure. It may also become serious if you haven’t been immunized against pneumonia, pertussis (whooping cough), or the flu. If acute bronchitis recurs repeatedly, it may turn into chronic bronchitis.

Chronic bronchitis is a form of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). It has the same symptoms as acute bronchitis, but can last for much longer, typically around three months. You may also experience recurrences of chronic bronchitis. These can last for two years or longer. Chronic bronchitis can be caused by smoking cigarettes. Environmental toxins, such as air pollution, can also be a cause.

Whether you have acute or chronic bronchitis, you can benefit from exercise. Determining when to push yourself and when to rest is important.

If you come down with acute bronchitis, your body will need to rest so that you can recover. You should hold off on exercise while you’re symptomatic, typically for three to 10 days. You may continue to have a dry cough for several weeks. You can exercise with this dry cough, but vigorous aerobics like running or dancing may be difficult.

Once your symptoms begin to improve, you can start exercising again. You may need to go slowly at first. Begin with low-impact cardiovascular workouts, such as swimming or walking. You can build up to longer, more intense workouts over several weeks.

If you practice yoga, you may have trouble maintaining certain poses at first. Inverted poses can bring up phlegm and cause you to cough. Start out with gentle poses, such as child’s pose and mountain pose.

If you have chronic bronchitis, exercising may seem challenging, but it can ultimately improve your overall health and quality of life. Breathing techniques, such as pursed-lip breathing, can help you breathe deeply and exercise longer. Pursed-lip breathing slows down your breathing, allowing you to take in more oxygen. To practice this technique, breathe in through your nose with a closed mouth. Then breathe out through pursed lips.

When planning your workouts, keep an eye on the weather. Weather extremes such as heatwaves, frigid temperatures, or high humidity can make it harder to breathe and may aggravate a lingering cough. If you have allergies, you may need to avoid high-pollen days. You may choose to exercise indoors when outside conditions aren’t ideal.

Regular exercise can help you feel better, both physically and mentally. The many benefits of exercise include:

  • increased energy
  • stronger bones
  • improved blood circulation
  • lower blood pressure
  • reduced body fat
  • reduced stress

After a bout of acute bronchitis, exercise can support your recovery and help you regain strength. If you have chronic bronchitis, exercise can help improve your chronic symptoms such as wheezing, shortness of breath, and fatigue. Exercise can also help strengthen the diaphragm and intercostal muscles, which support respiration. Cardiovascular exercise including swimming, walking, and running help your body use oxygen more efficiently and make breathing easier over time.

Physical exertion can sometimes exacerbate bronchitis symptoms. Stop exercising and rest if you experience:

  • shortness of breath
  • dizziness
  • chest pain
  • wheezing

If your symptoms continue, contact your doctor. Let them know what type of exercise you were doing when the symptoms occurred. You may be able to alleviate exercise-related complications by modifying the type or duration of your workout.

For example, if you’re a runner with chronic bronchitis, you may need to reduce your mileage and take precautions before a run. These may include using a humidifier to relax your bronchial tubes or practicing pursed-lip breathing prior to and during a run. Alternating between running and walking in three-to-five minute intervals may also help.

If you have chronic bronchitis, talk to your doctor before starting an exercise program. They can help you determine how much exercise to do each week, which types are right for you, and how to schedule your exercise around medication use.

Your doctor can also monitor your progress to help you reach your exercise goals without overdoing it. One way to do this is by using the Borg rating of perceived exertion (RPE) scale. This is a scale you can use to measure your exertion level during exercise. The scale is based on your own level of exertion. For example, walking a mile in 20 minutes (3 mph) may be a nine on your exertion scale, but it could be a 13 on a friend’s scale.

Borg rating of perceived exertion scale

Exertion rating Level of exertion
6-7no exertion
7.5-8extremely light exertion
9-10very light
11-12light
13-14somewhat hard
15-16heavy
17-18very heavy or hard
19extremely hard
20maximum level of exertion

Your doctor may also recommend trying pulmonary rehabilitation with a respiratory therapist who can show you how to better manage your breathing. This may help you exercise more without becoming winded or short of breath.

Exercise is good for your cardiovascular health, and can also be beneficial for your lungs. If you have bronchitis, you may need to take a short break from exercise. Once your symptoms begin to improve, you should be able to resume exercising. When exercising, remember to:

  • start slow
  • monitor your symptoms
  • work with your doctor

If you’ve had bronchitis, it’s important to start slow when returning to or starting an exercise program.

  • Listen to your body and take breaks when you need them.
  • Start small with exercises like stretching and low-impact cardiovascular workouts such as walking.
  • If you’re doing aerobics or another strenuous form of cardiovascular exercise, warm up first and cool down afterward. This will help you control and regulate your breathing, and also stretch out tight muscles.
  • Give yourself time and work up to realistic goals. Even after symptoms go away, your body will still need to recover.