Not So Fast! Learning to Pace Yourself

by Jane Martin Health Professional

If you have COPD, pacing is one of the most important things you'll ever learn.

"But, you don't understand. I've always done everything fast. Always worked hard. And you know what they say - you can't teach an old dog new tricks."

Well, I hate to tell you this, but you just can't rush anymore. You can't be in a hurry. It'll do you in - every single time.

Today we're going to talk about pacing - getting to your destination with as little shortness of breath (SOB) as possible. Whether that place is the door of the grocery store, a table at your favorite restaurant, or even your bathroom or easy chair, you don't have to gasp for breath. You can have control over your breathing and get where you've got to go - with breath to spare.

Even if you don't go to pulmonary rehab (and I hope you do) you can still benefit from learning simple, common sense techniques. Some of them are things that once you know them, you wonder why you never thought of them before. Just because you've always done something a certain way, doesn't mean it's a good idea to keep on doing it that way especially if you're limited by shortness of breath.

Because it can be difficult to change habits and your pace, it's best to have somebody work on this with you. A respiratory therapist who works in pulmonary rehab, an occupational therapist or a physical therapist could help you.

- Slow down. Walk slowly, and breathe right as you go. This is not easy to do. It might seem like you're holding yourself back, but once you get used to it, you'll find that it really works.
- Don't walk and talk at the same time. Talking takes breath and energy and when you want to get from here to there, you might have to use your energy for just that.
- Breathe with rhythm. Use pursed-lips breathing.
Work on it - and don't lose your rhythm! Breathe in for a count of two, and out for a count of four. Don't hold your breath! A common problem for people with COPD is to hold their breath when they're exerting - and that's just when you need your breath the most! Breathe out through pursed lips when you're doing the hard part.
- Monitor your oxygen if you have a pulse oximeter - after you've been taught how to use it. It's recommended to keep oxygen saturations (O2 Sats) at a minimum of 92 percent. Ask your doctor what your minimum O2 Sat should be.
- Plan ahead. When people with COPD talk about what causes them an increase in shortness of breath, something that always comes up is "rushing or hurrying." When you have COPD with significant shortness of breath, you simply cannot rush or hurry.
- Climbing Stairs. One of the most common problems for people coming into pulmonary rehab is becoming severely short of breath when climbing stairs. Here's a tip, but don't try this for the first time when you're alone. Show this to your doctor or respiratory health professional and ask him or her to work on this with you.

  • Climb stairs only as you exhale, as you slowly and gently blow your air out through pursed lips.

  • If you breathe in as you climb, you will tend to hold your breath and that can make your shortness of breath even worse.

  • Let's say you exhale for a count of four. In this case, climb just four steps. It may take a little longer, but you'll be in better shape when you reach the top.

If you have COPD, life may be different now. But, that doesn't mean it's bad. It's just different. Learn to pace yourself, conserve your breath and keep on going.

Jane Martin
Meet Our Writer
Jane Martin

Jane Martin is an accomplished respiratory therapist, author and founder and director of Breathing Better, Living She wrote for HealthCentral as a health professional for COPD.