4 Tips for Making Exercise Easier With COPD


Elizabeth Hanes, RN

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If you are one of the estimated 15 million Americans who have been diagnosed with COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease), you probably know that even the slightest physical activity can make you feel short of breath. Yet exercise remains a vital tool for improving stamina, reducing episodes of breathlessness, and maintaining your body’s ability to fight off infections. All of these benefits point to ‘why’ you should exercise with COPD, but not ‘how’ to exercise without experiencing anxiety from shortness of breath.

Use these strategies to make exercise easier when you have COPD:

1. Redefine what ‘exercise’ is and set realistic goals.

Begin by receiving permission from your doctor to exercise. Once you’ve been given the green light, think about exercise this way: It is any intentional physical activity of any duration. Under this definition, two minutes of walking twice a day qualifies as exercise—and you may need to start at that level.

Don’t aim right away for 30 minutes a day of vigorous walking if it makes you feel breathless. You should strive to work your way up to that level of intensity and duration. If you set your initial expectations too high and can’t meet them, then you run the risk of quitting exercise for good.

2. Expect some discomfort.

Even people without COPD experience discomfort when they exercise. This is normal and expected to some degree. You may feel winded from time to time as you exercise, and your muscles may hurt afterwards. Your job is to push through the mild to moderate discomfort of exercise and persevere over the long term. However, if you experience severe shortness of breath during exercise accompanied by chest pain, fainting or nausea, you should stop exercising and seek immediate medical attention.

3. Practice different breathing techniques.

According to the COPD Foundation, two types of breathing techniques may help you get through episodes of breathlessness:

  • Pursed-lip breathing. Breathe in through your nose for a count of two or three, then slowly exhale through puckered lips for about twice as long as you inhaled. During exercise, this technique can expel a higher volume of carbon dioxide from your lungs to make room for more oxygen.

  • Diaphragmatic breathing. Place your hand on your abdomen and focus on pushing your belly out as you inhale. This technique enables you to move more air in and out of your lungs.

The COPD Foundation also suggests a stop-reset-continue technique for catching your breath during exercise. When you get breathless, stop the activity, do pursed-lip breathing and then resume your activity when you have your wind back.

4. Use oxygen if prescribed.

If your doctor prescribed you supplemental oxygen therapy, you should wear the cannula while exercising. The activity of exercise will use up oxygen in your body relatively quickly, and you probably will need the extra air flow to power through your workout. Do not turn up the oxygen level during exercise unless directed to do so by your doctor or respiratory therapist. Too much oxygen in the lungs can be dangerous for people with COPD.

Although COPD is a disease of the lungs, it can affect your entire body. The breathlessness that often accompanies COPD may cause you to avoid physical activity, which can lead to muscle weakness, falls, and other problems. Inactivity also can decrease your body’s ability to fight off infections, including lung infections like pneumonia. When you exercise in spite of COPD, you help yourself stay strong, breathe better, and improve your quality of life.

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Medical Reviewers: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS Last Review Date: Dec 6, 2017

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