Pursed lip breathing is a technique designed to make your breaths more effective by making them slower and more intentional. You inhale by puckering your lips and exhale through them slowly, often to a count.

Pursed lip breathing gives you more control over your breathing, which is particularly important for people with lung conditions such as COPD.

Pursed lip breathing should be practiced until it becomes second nature. It’s most effective when you’re focused or relaxed. Here’s how to practice.

  1. Sit with your back straight or lie down. Relax your shoulders as much as possible.
  2. Inhale through your nose for two seconds, feeling the air move into your abdomen. Try to fill your abdomen with air instead of just your lungs.
  3. Purse your lips like you’re blowing on hot food and then breathe out slowly, taking twice as long to exhale as you took to breathe in.
  4. Then repeat. Over time, you can increase the inhale and exhale counts from 2 seconds to 4 seconds, and so on.

Pursed lip breathing improves the lung mechanics and breathing all at once, meaning that you don’t have to work as hard to breathe well. This is particularly helpful for people who have lung conditions that make it more difficult for them to breathe. These conditions can include obstructive lung disease, such as asthma, and restrictive lung disease, such as pulmonary fibrosis (PF), which is a type of interstitial lung disease (ILD).

Pursed lip breathing is also used as part of treatment for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). People with this condition have severely declining lung function and breathing ability. The disease progresses to overinflated lungs and reduced ability to exhale air. It can make breathing so difficult that it impacts the quality of the person’s life.

There are significant health benefits for people with COPD who practice pursed lip breathing. One study found that pursed lip breathing reduced dynamic hyperinflation in people with COPD. It also significantly improved their exercise tolerance, breathing patterns, and arterial oxygen.

COPD can only be delayed, and the damage can’t be repaired once it happens. For that reason, breathing exercises to improve lung function are essential. They can make breathing significantly easier.

Pursed lip breathing can help improve and control your breathing in several ways, including:

  • relieving shortness of breath by slowing the breath rate
  • keeping the airways open longer, which decreases the work that goes into breathing
  • improving ventilation by moving old air (carbon dioxide) trapped in the lungs out and making room for new, fresh oxygen

In addition to the lung benefits you can get from pursed lip breathing, it can also lead to overall relaxation. By taking consistent, deep breaths, you can calm the central nervous system, which has a relaxing effect on your entire body. This can help reduce stress and anxiety.

Pursed lip breathing has no risks or complications associated with it. Make sure, however, that you let your doctor know right away if you notice your lung function decreasing noticeably. A change in treatment may be needed.

In addition to pursed lip breathing, there are other types of breathing exercises. Some are designed to calm the central nervous system to soothe anxiety or panic disorders, while others have the primary goal of increasing lung function and breathing efficiency.

The other exercise most commonly used to treat lung conditions that make breathing more difficult is diaphragmatic breathing. This exercise is sometimes called abdominal breathing or belly breathing. You sit or lie on your back, placing one hand on your abdomen and one on your chest. You inhale through your nose, and then press gently on your abdomen while slowly exhaling to push up on your diaphragm and push the air out.

Other types of breathing exercises include:

  • box breathing, where you inhale and hold your breath, then exhale and hold your breath, for equal counts
  • Sama Vritti, or equal breathing, where you inhale and exhale for equal counts to help you relax

Pursed lips breathing should be practiced until it becomes second nature. Once you’ve got it down, it can help you improve your breath control and make exercise more tolerable, even if you have lung conditions like COPD. Use it during the most difficult parts of an exercise if necessary.