Exercising with COPD

Reviewed by: HU Medical Review Board | Last reviewed: July 2015.

Why do COPD patients need to exercise?1,2

Exercising regularly is one of the best ways that patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) can help manage the disease. For this reason, planning and following an exercise routine is a key part of a pulmonary rehabilitation program.

Because people with COPD often feel short of breath and tired, they can tend to avoid being active and exercising. Because they are not active, their level of physical fitness can worsen. This can lead to patients becoming even more tired and out of shape, which can make exercise and activity even more difficult. This cycle is called “de-conditioning,” and it is a common problem for COPD patients.

What are the benefits of exercising for COPD patients?1,2,3

It is very important to break the de-conditioning cycle by starting and sticking to an exercise plan. There are many benefits of regular exercise:

  • Stronger muscles
  • Higher energy levels and stamina
  • Lower blood pressure
  • Improved blood circulation and blood-oxygen levels
  • Increased heart and lung strength
  • Increased appetite
  • Healthier body weight
  • Improved balance and flexibility
  • Improved COPD symptoms, such as breathlessness
  • Better quality of life
  • Better sleep quality
  • Reduced stress, anxiety, and depression

What kinds of exercises are good for COPD patients?2,3,4

Regular stretching is a good way to improve muscle strength and flexibility. It is also helpful to stretch before and after exercising to help prevent injuries.

Aerobic exercises involve a steady level of activity over a longer period of time. Aerobic exercises that can benefit COPD patients may be:

  • Walking
  • Stationary biking
  • Stair climbing
  • Swimming
  • Water aerobics

Strengthening exercises are used to make muscles stronger. During these kinds of exercises, a person tightens groups of muscles repeatedly until they get tired. Making the muscles that are involved in the breathing process get stronger can help COPD patients to breathe easier.

What are some tips for starting an exercise routine?2,3,4

  • Start slowly and gradually increase the time you spend exercising each session
  • Exercise at least 3-4 times a week, for 20-40 minutes at a time
  • Remember to warm up and cool down before and after each exercise session
  • Find an exercise partner and do fun exercise activities
  • Keep track of your exercise sessions and measure your progress
  • Drink the amount of fluids advised by your healthcare provider
  • Don’t exercise within 90 minutes after eating
  • Listen to your body, and rest or take breaks when needed
  • Avoid hot or cold showers right after exercising
  • Wear the right type of clothing and shoes
  • Set realistic exercising goals for yourself

What precautions do COPD patients need to take while exercising?3,4

COPD patients should design an exercise routine with help from their healthcare providers or their pulmonary rehabilitation program. The routine needs to be matched to the patient’s personal level of fitness and condition.

Patients should seek advice from healthcare professionals about which kinds of exercises they should avoid, such as:

  • Heavy lifting, shoveling, mowing, or raking
  • Pushups or sit-ups
  • Exercising outdoors during very hot, cold, or humid weather
  • Walking up steep hills

Even if patients feel short of breath while exercising, it is important to remember that they are not doing damage to their lungs. Using strategies such as pursed-lip breathing can help reduce the feeling of breathlessness while exercising.

However, COPD patients should stop exercising right away and contact a healthcare provider if exercising causes serious symptoms, such as:

  • Nausea
  • Feeling dizzy or weak
  • Having a rapid or irregular heartbeat
  • Severe breathlessness
  • Feeling of pressure or pain in the chest, arm, neck, jaw or shoulder

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