COPD and Exercise: Tips for Succeeding With Your Exercise Plan

You might not think COPD and exercise go well together, but actually they do. The fact is, exercise offers concrete benefits for all of us. This is true, whether we are in good health or even if we have a chronic illness.

Here are some of the benefits of exercise, especially if you have COPD:1

  • Strengthens your heart, lowers blood pressure and improves your circulation of blood throughout your body
  • Improves your breathing and how efficiently your body uses oxygen
  • Improves your energy and increases your endurance, so that you can tolerate exercise better
  • Builds muscle tone and strength, which in turn lead to better balance and joint function
  • Strengthens your bones
  • Helps you reach or maintain a healthy body weight, which can  improve your COPD symptoms
  • Reduces stress and improves anxiety and depression, which are common in people who have COPD
  • Leads to better sleep, which improves your activity tolerance

How to get started with exercise

Most everyone will benefit from at least some type of exercise. But because you have a serious respiratory condition, you should check with your doctor first, before starting a new program. Ask your doctor if there are any restrictions as to type of exercise, when to exercise or how much to do. You might also ask whether you should time any of your medicines around when you exercise.

Getting started with exercise is usually the hardest part. Before you begin, you may find it helpful to reflect on why you want to be more active. Besides the health benefits listed above, in what other ways might it benefit you and your family? Then, make a plan and write it down. Be sure to include the specific activities you plan to do each day of the week, and schedule them into your calendar. This will make it easier to stick to your plan, so that exercising becomes a habit.

Start small! If you haven't been active, be realistic about how much you can do and how hard you can go. People often quit exercise programs because they did too much too soon. Ease into your program, and increase the intensity and duration of your workouts as you get stronger and more fit.

Choose activities you'll enjoy doing. If exercise isn't fun, it's hard to stick with it for very long.

Choosing the right type of exercise for you

As I said above, it's important to create the right type of exercise plan for you. Don't force yourself into exercise that isn't fun for you. The good news is, there are many different types of exercise from which to choose. Here are the three main categories:


This is a slow lengthening and toning of your various muscle groups. Also, loosening up the muscles around the neck, chest and upper back may offer more room for the lungs to expand. And that can make breathing easier. Stretching is one of the most gentle types of exercise you can do and is especially easy for people with COPD to start with.

Even if you plan to do other types of exercise, taking time to stretch out your major muscles before and after those activities can help them go more smoothly and increase your chances of avoiding injury.

Yoga is an example of an exercise that incorporates stretching, along with strengthening and balance. If you can get out to a yoga class, great! There are even seated yoga classes offered in some locations. But you can also do yoga at home, by following yoga videos on DVD or online.

Cardio/aerobic exercise

This is a steady physical activity that gets your heart rate up and uses your large muscles.1 There are many levels of intensity for cardio, and many different types of aerobic exercise. Cardio will strengthen your heart and lungs over time, as well as improve your muscle tone.

Cardio may sound daunting if you find you get short of breath just walking to the bathroom, but starting slow and gentle is possible. Here are some types of cardio/aerobic exercise that are good for beginners or those who are out of shape:

  • Walking. This is one of the best ways to get started, because it can be done anywhere, for as long or as little as you like. You can walk at your own speed, inside or out. You can start out slow and build up gradually.
  • Biking. This is another great low impact form of exercise. Whether you choose to ride your bike around the neighborhood, use a stationary bike indoors or even ride one of the spin bikes at the gym, it's easy to move at your own pace and stop and take breaks to catch your breath as needed.
  • Tai Chi. This slow moving, Chinese practice of continuous gentle movements is another great low impact exercise. Find a local class or use videos to learn the moves. Your heart, lungs and muscles will all benefit!
  • Swimming. The moist atmosphere at swimming pools can help make exercise more tolerable for people with COPD. Water aerobics can also be a great way to get moving.
  • Dancing. I teach Zumba Gold and this is a wonderful low-impact form of the popular dance fitness format. It's perfect for older adults, people who don't start out fit and people with chronic illnesses. I even had one woman who danced while wearing her portable oxygen tank.

Other possibilities are aerobic classes, jogging, rowing, cross-country skiing and skating. Even stair climbing can be an aerobic exercise.

Strength training

This type of exercise involves repeatedly tightening a specific muscle to the point of fatigue. Strength training can be done with or without weights. Focusing on your upper body can help strengthen your respiratory muscles, making breathing easier.1

If you decide to use weights, start with small 1 or 2 pound weights. You can even just use filled water bottles or cans from your pantry to get started. Try to do 2 sets of 10-12 repetitions of each exercise. You'll find lots of strength training programs online that you can follow. Or ask a personal trainer at your gym for recommendations. Silver Sneakers also offers some gentle strength training programs for older adults.

Here are a few stretching and strengthening exercises to get you started in a home program.

Tips to keep you going with exercise

Here are a few tips to keep you exercising successfully over the long term.

  1. Breathe intentionally. Take slow, even breaths while working out. Inhale through your nose and exhale twice as slowly through your mouth. You can even exhale using pursed lips (like blowing out a candle) to more fully expand your airways.
  2. Build up gradually. Experts recommend that we exercise for 30 minutes a day, 5 days a week (or 150 minutes a week).2 But you don't have to get all 30 minutes at the same time. If your endurance is low, start with 5 or 10 minutes a few times a day. Work up to 30 continuous minutes as you can.
  3. Change up your routine from time to time. No matter how much you love a particular form of exercise, it can get boring if that's all you ever do. Try something new. If you work out at home, try a class at your local gym or yoga studio, or vice versa. Vary your workouts between stretching, strength training and cardio.
  4. Find an exercise buddy. Not only can having a workout partner be fun, you'll also keep each other going. It's harder to skip a workout when you know someone else is depending on you.
  5. Stay positive. There will be ups and downs in both your exercise routine and your COPD health. That's OK; just get back in the habit as soon as you can.

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This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.

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