Better Breathing Exercises for COPD
Last updated: October 2020
The main effect of having COPD is how it affects your ability to breathe easily. The four main symptoms of COPD include:1
- Shortness of breath, especially during activity
- Chest tightness
- Chronic cough, usually with mucus that can be hard to cough up
All of those symptoms have to do with, or impact, your breathing when you have COPD. You may have heard that learning how to perform certain breathing exercises could improve those symptoms.
Breathing exercises can be beneficial
In my research for this post, I found that quite a few reputable organizations recommend breathing exercises as being beneficial for people with COPD.2, 3, 4, 5 However, authors of an article published in the American Family Physician journal reviewed 16 different studies that evaluated breathing exercise techniques. They found that there was no real benefit to these exercises, breathing-wise.6 They did note that the breathing exercises improved exercise tolerance, though.
Breathing exercises have no downside, however, other than the time taken to learn and master them and then perform them. So, if you'd like to try them, this post will describe the various techniques. And, after all, breathing exercises are "all-natural" and you are in control of them. That's a plus, right? Plus, different things work for different people, so why not try?
Common better breathing exercises for COPD
Practicing breathing exercises can help you manage your symptoms more proactively. As noted above, they may also help you be more active and have more energy overall. Here are the exercises we'll cover in this post:
- Pursed lip breathing
- Diaphragmatic breathing
- Deep breathing
- Coordinated breathing
There may or may not be long term benefits of using these exercises on your COPD symptoms. But they can help you relax and feel more in control. They can also improve the flow of air in and out of your lungs in the short term.3
Pursed lip breathing
With this method, you breathe in through your nose to a count of 1-2. Then, then exhale through your mouth, with your lips pursed or puckered as though you were whistling or blowing out a candle. Do this to a count of 1-2-3-4.
This is also sometimes referred to as abdominal, or belly, breathing. Your diaphragm is a large muscle in your abdomen, just below your lungs. It helps with breathing. Because people with COPD are so often short of breath, they get in the habit of using what are called accessory muscles to breathe, rather than relying on the diaphragm. These accessory muscles are in the neck, shoulders, and back, and they're not very effective.2
To do this type of breathing, you'll breathe in through your nose, while allowing your belly--not your chest--to expand. Then, breathe out through pursed lips, while your belly deflates. This exercise is often best learned by doing it lying down, with your hand on your belly to feel the movement.3
The American Lung Association has a video demonstrating this exercise.
This is more about calming your breath than doing a specific exercise like the previous two techniques described above. If you've ever taken yoga, you may have done this type of breathing.
It involves taking in a deep breath through your nose and then holding it for a few seconds. If you can count to 5 while holding your breath, great. If not, hold it as long as you can comfortably. Then release the air through your mouth with a long, slow, deep exhale.5
This is another way of controlling your breath. It can be especially helpful when being active. If you've ever done any strength training, you may have done this type of breathing. It prevents you from holding your breath while doing something strenuous. That ensures that oxygen gets to your muscles and other parts of your body.
What you do is to breathe in slowly through your nose before making an effort to do something, like stand up or climb a step. Then, as you exert yourself, breathe out slowly through those pursed lips.4
Practicing regularly can help
It's hard to know whether these breathing exercises will help your COPD. But if they help you relax when breathlessness strikes or to exercise better, then they might be worth a try. They're not hard to learn, but performing them correctly can take some practice.
Practice these exercises a few times daily until they become routine. Over time, you may find that one works better than another.
Where do you stand with your COPD?