Exercise With COPD: Yes, You Can!

Shortness of breath may make workouts seem unworkable. Here’s why they’re worth the effort

A senior African-American woman in her 70s hiking in a park smiling and leaning on a walking stick, standing with trees and lush foliage in the background.

Exercise can make anyone out of breath and tired, but people with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) often feel that way before they break a sweat. It may be tempting to stay on the sidelines, but physical activity is one of the MVPs in lung health. In fact, it’s widely known as the cornerstone of lung rehab.

For people with COPD in particular, regular aerobic exercise can lead to these perks:

  • less shortness of breath and fatigue
  • less anxiety and depression
  • better blood flow and oxygen use
  • more energy
  • stronger heart, lungs, muscles, and bones
  • better balance and flexibility
  • better sleep
  • better quality of life

Exercise also makes everyday activities easier and helps with maintaining a healthy weight. On the other hand, less activity may worsen symptoms for people who have COPD. Some studies suggest that less exercise increases the likelihood of hospital visits. In short, it’s well worth lacing up those sneakers and stepping up to the challenge.

Try these strategies to ease into exercise in a way that is safe and fits your lifestyle.

Talk to your health-care team. Following your COPD treatment plan can make it easier to stick with exercise. Ask your doctor if you should use oxygen during physical activity and what your oxygen flow rate should be; it may need to be higher than usual. Ask about how to be safe and how to recognize signs that you should stop. Also ask what activities may be best for you.

Clear the air. Exercise makes you breathe more deeply through your mouth. So whatever air you’re in, more of it gets into your lungs. That’s why it’s important not to exercise outside if there’s lots of smog or air pollution. Look for a workout location inside or where there aren’t particles that can trigger breathing problems.

Start smart. Take it slow and easy. Your muscles, including your breathing muscles, aren’t used to exercise. Give them time to adjust. Use the talk test to set a safe pace: You should be able to carry on a conversation while you work out. Ask your doctor how much to do each day and each week.

Pace your breathing. Shortness of breath won’t hurt your lungs—it just means they need more oxygen. Pursed-lip breathing helps you time your breathing to fit your activity. It can also help you not be as out of breath. Here are the basics: Close your mouth and inhale slowly through your nose, then purse your lips and exhale slowly as if you’re blowing out a candle. Spend about two seconds breathing in and four seconds breathing out.

Keep it simple. Taking a short walk is a good and inexpensive way to start moving more. Walk until you become short of breath, then stop and rest for about three minutes. Use the talk test to check your pace, even if you’re walking alone. Also, stay close to home or a place where you can take a break when you need one, and be sure to wear well-fitting shoes.

Switch things up. Because upper-body exercises engage the muscles that help you breathe (along with your arms, back, chest, or whatever you’re targeting), these moves may leave you more short of breath than lower-body ones. Switch back and forth between lower- and upper-body exercises—with a rest in between—to help you exercise longer and feel better. If you’re new to exercise, consider working with a fitness professional who understands your condition and can help you create a personalized program.