a man thinking about exercise with one really buff man and a normal man on oxygen lifting weights

COPD and Exercise: Myth vs. Fact

You may have heard that exercise is still important, even if you have COPD. But you may be asking yourself things like:

  • Is it safe?
  • How can I exercise when I can barely breathe?
  • What type of exercise should I do and how much?

Those are just a few of the questions you probably have. This post will examine some of the myths surrounding exercise. It will also lay out the facts, so you can make the best decision for you.

Myth 1 - Exercise is dangerous when you can't breathe well

Fact: Exercise actually improves breathing

It may seem counter-intuitive to become more active when you're already having trouble breathing at rest or during normal daily activities. But here's the deal: exercise makes your breathing easier, eventually. It can help in these ways:1,2

  • Improves blood circulation
  • Helps your heart send oxygen to the rest of your body
  • Strengthens your airway muscles
  • Builds your energy levels
  • Helps achieve a healthier weight

All of those things can make it easier to breathe as your health improves.

Myth 2 - No point in trying if I'm totally sedentary

Fact: Any improvement in your physical fitness is beneficial

Whether you're a former athlete who has lost fitness due to breathing problems, someone who has never really been active, or somewhere in between, doesn't matter. Start where you are -- and do better and feel better over time. This is not a competition.

Start slow and easy and pay attention to your body. Pulmonary rehab is a great way to learn more about exercise and COPD. But if that's not an option for you, then there are 3 basic types of exercise that can be beneficial:1,2

  • Stretching. Doing gentle stretches and holding them for up to 30 seconds while breathing in and out will do wonders for your body. Over time, you can gradually increase your range of motion and hold your poses for longer and longer. If you're not sure what kind of stretches to do, you can find lots of suggestions on YouTube or COPD websites. There are even apps for your smartphone. Yoga or chair yoga can also be a great type of stretching exercise. It's a good idea to stretch before and after other types of exercise too.
  • Cardio. This type of exercise, also called aerobic, pushes your heart and lungs to work more efficiently. Great types of exercise for people with COPD are walking, biking, water aerobics, and swimming. Perhaps even gentle dancing! Choose an activity that makes you happy and work up to doing it for about a half hour a few times a week.
  • Strength training. Resistance work done well can help your muscles get stronger by contracting them. You can use light weights, bands or even filled water bottles or soup cans to perform sets of exercises. Take breaks in between sets and do this no more often than every second day. Again, sample resistance exercise may be found on YouTube, phone apps or the Web. Or just ask your health care team for suggestions.

Myth 3 - Don't push too hard when it comes to being active

Fact: If you never push your limits at all, you'll never improve

Exercise for both healthy people and for chronically ill people is all about balance. Is it possible to push too hard and too fast? Of course! But, it's also important to know that if you never push at least a bit beyond your personal threshold for soreness or fatigue, then chances are, you won't see things improve.

So, how do you know what's not enough--or what's too much?

Here are some general guidelines:2

  1. Increase your activity level gradually, and listen to your body. Monitor your progress day to day and week to week. You might start out barely able to do anything, but your exercise tolerance will improve over time if you keep at it.
  2. Use the Perceived Rate of Exertion scale (RPE) to measure the intensity of your exercise. The RPE reflects your perception of how easy or hard the exercise session is. It runs from a low of 0 (no trouble at all) to 10 (very, very hard). Experts recommend you exercise at a level of 3 (moderately hard) to 4 (somewhat hard) most of the time.
  3. Balance active periods with rest. It's not the best idea to schedule exercise right after a meal or after your daily personal hygiene routine, as those may be times when you are already feeling low in energy or having more trouble breathing. Give yourself time to recover. During exercise, rest briefly if you become breathless. And then continue.
  4. Always warm up before exercise and cool down afterwards. This can help you avoid injury. It can also ease your heart and lungs into activity gradually to give them to adjust. Stretching or slow walking are great ways to warm up and cool down.
  5. Stick with it. Make exercise part of your regular daily schedule so that it becomes a habit and not an afterthought. Find an exercise buddy to share the fun and your successes with. Set achievable goals and celebrate when you reach them.
  6. Know your limits, but push them regularly. You never want to exercise to the point of collapse. But when you're starting to feel fatigued or like you can't do anymore, push just a little bit beyond that point. That's how you grow and improve.

In Summary

Exercise is beneficial, even for people with COPD, or maybe especially for people with COPD. Exercise will not harm your lungs or hasten the progress of your COPD. Quite the opposite. But learning how to breathe during exercise can make a big difference.2

First, inhale through your nose if you can, because this warms, moisturizes and filters the air before it hits the rest of your airways. When you breathe out, do so through pursed lips (as though you were trying to blow out a candle). This helps empty your lungs more efficiently. It also enhances the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide in your lungs, which is essential.

Finally, try to exhale for twice as long as you inhale. For example, if you breathe in for 2 seconds, breathe out for 4 seconds. Do whatever feels natural for you.

When you're just starting out, you don't need a formal exercise program, although if you find one, that's great. But just getting up and walking rather than sitting on the couch or your recliner is a great first step. Take the stairs if you can. Park further away from the door. Just get up and move!

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