Living with COPD: Exercise

  • Always consult your doctor before starting any exercise program. These are basic suggestions for people who have been approved to exercise under the supervision of a doctor or pulmonary rehabilitation professional. This is not intended as medical advice.

    If you have COPD and are short of breath, chances are the last thing you want to do is exercise. But, of all the treatments for COPD, exercise might just be the one thing that makes the biggest difference in your physical – and emotional – well being.

    Sure, it would be great if everybody with COPD could go to pulmonary rehab to learn how to exercise safely in a monitored environment. Unfortunately that’s not possible, so here are some exercise basics. Bring this information to your doctor and ask if it would be okay for you to start an exercise routine.

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    Types of Exercise

    Stretching and flexibility exercises help improve your posture, movement and breathing. Stretching the right way can reduce, or even eliminate, muscle soreness brought on by exercise. Flexibility activities can reduce your chance of falls or other injuries.

    Strengthening and resistance activities help build muscles, improve strength, and maintain bone health. Using hand weights and / or resistance bands and working with weight machines are good ways to increase your strength.

    Endurance and aerobic exercise helps improve the function of your heart. Walking, biking, rowing, stepping, and swimming are endurance exercises. When done the right way this type of training builds stamina and endurance – with shortness of breath you can control.

    Breathing Techniques
    Always use pursed-lips breathing during exertion of any kind, but especially with exercise. This will help you do more while feeling less short of breath. When you are lifting weights, exhale as you lift. Never hold your breath! Always keep your shoulders relaxed and use the diaphragmatic breathing technique also, if possible. If you become short of breath, stop and rest for a moment before starting again.

    Getting ready
    •    Wear clothes that move with you, supportive shoes that fasten snugly and socks that cushion your feet and absorb sweat.
    •    If you have a quick-acting “rescue” inhaler, ask your doctor if it would be okay for you to use it fifteen minutes before starting to exercise. Doing this can help keep your bronchial airways as open as possible.
    •    If your doctor has recommended that you use supplemental oxygen during exertion, ask your O2 company to set you up with a portable, lightweight system – and make sure you know how long it will last!
    •    Start slowly, even if you feel you can do more. If you haven’t exercised in a while your body needs to get used to it again. Don't overdo it on the first day, no matter how motivated you are. A muscle that may not hurt today might tell you tomorrow loud and clear that you overdid it – and that could cause you to become discouraged. In some programs exercise time is increased by one minute each session (under the direction of an exercise specialist) unless you’re able to do more.

  • •    Start with a three-minute warm-up. This means go slow and easy for the first three minutes. Don't go full out on cold muscles.

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    •    Do cool-down stretches as directed by an exercise specialist. Stretch just until you feel a gentle pull. Don't bounce!
    •    Let's say you want to walk outside and you know you’re able to walk for ten minutes non-stop. In this case, walk for five minutes, turn around, and go back to your starting point. Check out your walking route ahead of time (driving your car) to see if there are any places to sit down or lean on if you need to take a break. Don't get stuck somewhere out there with no breath left to get home!
    •    If it’s okay with your doctor or physical therapist, add weight or resistance training to your routine. When you’re starting out, lifting soup cans or bottled water will do.
    •    Don't exercise on an empty stomach. Have a light meal or a snack before your work out. Carbohydrates and proteins are good. If it is okay for your diet, peanut butter or cheese on crackers or a peanut butter sandwich works well. Add fresh fruit and eight ounces of water and you're ready to go!
    •    If possible, exercise in a group or with a buddy. It will keep you motivated, be more enjoyable, and make sure help is there if you need it. If you have to exercise alone inside, keep it interesting! Exercise where you can look out a window, watch TV, or listen to music. If you walk outside alone, walk in the daylight and carry a cell phone.
    •    If you’re in a pulmonary rehab program you’ll be monitored by the staff to make sure your blood oxygen, heart rate, and blood pressure are at safe levels. If you’re exercising on your own, you can monitor your oxygen saturation and heart rate after you’ve been trained by a pulmonary exercise specialist. 

    Remember, even if you’re really short of breath, you can exercise, as long as you do it the right way. You might be surprised at how much you can do!

    Watch for our next sharepost when we’ll talk about choosing home exercise equipment.

    To find a Pulmonary Rehabilitation program near you contact the AACVPR
    For exercise on your own: Sit and Be Fit for COPD exercise DVD or check with your local community center for information on low-level exercise classes

    Jane M. Martin is a licensed respiratory therapist, teacher and director of,  and  the author of Live Your Life With COPD: 52 Weeks of Health, Happiness and Hope and Breathe Better, Live in Wellness: Winning Your Battle Over Shortness of Breath.

Published On: September 26, 2011