COPD and Exercise: Breathing and Exercise Programs for COPD

Medically Reviewed by Poonam Sachdev on April 25, 2023
7 min read

If you have chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), it may be harder for you to eat well and to exercise. Your energy may be limited, making it harder to be physically active or to do things like prepare and eat meals.

But exercise and good nutrition can help you live better with COPD. Learn why – and what you can do to stay healthier.

Exercise – especially exercise that works your lungs and heart – has many benefits for people who have COPD. Exercise can:

  • Improve how well your body uses oxygen. That’s important because people with COPD use more energy to breathe than other people do.
  • Ease your symptoms and improve your breathing
  • Strengthen your heart, lower your blood pressure, and improve your circulation
  • Improve your energy, making it possible to stay more active
  • Improve your sleep and make you feel more relaxed
  • Help you maintain a healthy weight
  • Enhance your mental and emotional outlook
  • Reduce your social isolation, if you exercise with others
  • Strengthen your bones

These four types of exercise can help you if you have COPD. How much you focus on each type depends on the COPD exercise program your health care provider suggests for you.

Stretching exercises lengthen your muscles, making you more flexible.

Aerobic exercises use large muscle groups to move at a steady, rhythmic pace. This type of exercise works your heart and lungs, improving their endurance. This helps your body use oxygen better and, with time, can improve your breathing. Walking and using a stationary bike are two good aerobic exercises if you have COPD.

Strengthening exercises involve tightening muscles until they begin to tire. When you do this for the upper body, it can help increase the strength of your breathing muscles.

Breathing exercises for COPD help you strengthen breathing muscles, get more oxygen, and breathe with less effort. Here are two examples of breathing exercises you can begin practicing. Work up to 5 to 10 minutes, three to four times a day.

Pursed-lip breathing:

  1. Relax your neck and shoulder muscles.
  2. Breathe in for 2 seconds through your nose, keeping your mouth closed.
  3. Breathe out for 4 seconds through pursed lips. If this is too long for you, simply breathe out for twice as long as you breathe in.

Use pursed-lip breathing while exercising. If you have shortness of breath, try slowing your rate of breathing and focus on breathing out through pursed lips.

Diaphragmatic breathing:

  1. Lie on your back with knees bent. You can put a pillow under your knees for support.
  2. Place one hand on your belly below your rib cage. Place the other hand on your chest.
  3. Inhale deeply through your nose for a count of three. Your belly and lower ribs should rise, but your chest should remain still.
  4. Tighten your stomach muscles and exhale for a count of six through slightly puckered lips.

When you have COPD, shortness of breath may be a daily and unwelcome fact of life. Perhaps your doctor is urging you to enter a pulmonary rehabilitation program to help you manage your disease better. Some pulmonary rehab programs use breathing devices, called inspiratory muscle trainers, that train patients to increase the pressure that breathing muscles have to generate per breath. Pulmonary rehab programs also teach patients exercises to strengthen their arms and legs. Typically, patients do aerobic and isotonic exercises, the latter designed to strengthen muscles.

  • Set realistic goals.
  • Slowly increase the number of minutes and days you exercise. A good goal is to exercise 20 to 40 minutes, two to four times a week.
  • Start out slow. Warm up for a few minutes.
  • Choose activities you enjoy, and vary them to help you stay motivated.
  • Find an exercise partner.
  • Keep a record of your exercise to help you stay on track.
  • As you end your exercise, cool down by moving more slowly.

It's good to be careful when exercising with COPD, but remember that shortness of breath doesn't always mean you should stop altogether. Ask your doctor about when you should stop exercising and rest.

Here are other exercise precautions:

  • Always consult a doctor or other health care provider before starting a COPD exercise program. If you have a change in any medications, talk to your doctor before continuing your exercise routine.
  • Balance exercise with rest. If you feel tired, start at a lower level. If you feel very tired, rest and try again the next day.
  • Wait at least an hour and a half after eating before beginning to exercise.
  • When you drink fluids while exercising, remember any fluid restrictions you have.
  • Avoid hot or cold showers after exercising.
  • If you've been away from exercise for several days, start up slowly, and gradually return to your regular routine.

Exercises to avoid when you have COPD:

  • Heavy lifting or pushing
  • Chores such as shoveling, mowing, or raking
  • Pushups, situps, or isometric exercises, which involve pushing against immovable objects
  • Outdoor exercises when the weather is very cold, hot, or humid
  • Walking up steep hills

Ask your doctor whether exercises like weightlifting, jogging, and swimming are OK for you to do.

If you have any of these signs or symptoms, stop your COPD exercise program right away. Sit down, and keep your feet raised while resting. If you don't feel better right away, call 911. Even if you do feel better, make sure you tell your doctor right away about any of these symptoms:

  • Nausea
  • Dizziness
  • Weakness
  • Rapid or irregular heartbeat
  • Severe shortness of breath
  • Pain
  • Pressure or pain in your chest, arm, neck, jaw, or shoulder

If you have COPD, your respiratory muscles burn 10 times as many calories as those of other people. That’s because it takes so much energy just for you to breathe. On top of that, you may take medications or have depression that can reduce your appetite.

A healthy diet can help manage your condition and help you feel better. Here are three reasons why:

1. If you don't get enough calories and are underweight:

  • You may be more likely to get an infection.
  • You may become weak and tired more often.
  • The muscles that control your breathing may weaken.

2. If you're overweight:

  • Your heart and lungs must work harder.
  • Your body may demand more oxygen.
  • Your breathing may become more difficult, especially if you carry weight around your middle.

3. When you have COPD, a diet full of healthy foods:

  • Helps you maintain a healthy weight
  • Provides your body the energy it needs
  • Supplies enough calories, keeping breathing and other muscles strong
  • Helps your body fight infections by strengthening your immune system

When you have COPD, you may need to make some diet changes. But always do this under the guidance of a registered dietitian or other health care provider who can prepare a nutrition action plan tailored to your exact needs.

Here are a few COPD and diet guidelines to get started:

Eat a variety of healthy foods such as vegetables, fruits, whole grains, dairy products, and proteins. High-fiber foods are especially important. They help with digestion, control blood sugar levels, reduce cholesterol levels, and can help control weight.

Drink plenty of water. Not only does it help prevent gas when you eat high-fiber foods, but water helps thin mucus so you can cough it up easier. Most people need six to eight 8-ounce glasses of water a day. Check with your doctor, though, because some health conditions require that you limit your fluids.

Choose decaffeinated and noncarbonated beverages. Limit alcohol, which can interact with medications, can slow breathing, and may make it harder to cough up mucus.

Ask about certain foods. Certain nutrients, such as omega-3 fatty acids, may help reduce inflammation and improve lung function. Ask your doctor.

Avoid salt. Salt (sodium) makes your body retain water, which increases swelling. This makes it harder to breathe. To get less salt, try to:

  • Read food labels and choose foods with fewer than 300 milligrams (mg) of sodium per serving.
  • Use no-salt spices.
  • Avoid adding salt while cooking.

Avoid foods that cause gas or bloating. Everyone knows how uncomfortable that full-stomach feeling is. And it may make it harder to breathe. To ease gas or bloating, avoid foods and drinks such as:

  • Beans, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, and cauliflower
  • Carbonated beverages
  • Fried, spicy, or greasy foods

Avoid empty foods. Junk foods such as chips and candy don't provide any nutritional value.

If you need to gain weight, choose more high-protein, high-calorie foods such as cheese, peanut butter, eggs, milk, and yogurt. Ask about nutritional supplements to increase the number of calories and nutrients you get each day.

If you have COPD, mealtime can feel like a chore. Try these tips for easier eating:

Conserve energy:

  • Choose foods that are easier to prepare. It's more important to eat than to prepare fancy foods.
  • Get help with meal preparation. Ask your family or friends for help, or check with local government agencies or church organizations about meal deliveries. Many are low-cost; some are free.
  • Freeze extra portions and take them out when you're very tired.
  • Eat your main meals earlier in the day, when you have extra energy.

Breathe easier at mealtime:

  • Eat sitting up, not lying down. This prevents extra pressure on your lungs.
  • If you use continuous oxygen, wear your cannula while eating to provide the energy your body needs for eating and digestion.
  • Take small bites, chew slowly, and breathe deeply while chewing.
  • Choose easy-to-chew foods.
  • Eat smaller, more frequent meals.
  • Drink fluids at the end of the meal so you don't fill up too fast.

Stimulate your appetite:

  • Keep healthy foods visible and within easy reach.
  • Eat a variety of healthy foods, especially your favorites.
  • Use colorful place settings or play background music while eating.
  • Eat with other people as often as you can.
  • Walk or do light exercises.

To help monitor and maintain a healthy weight if you have COPD:

  • Weigh yourself once or twice a week, or as often as your doctor suggests. If you take water pills, called diuretics, you should weigh yourself every day.
  • Contact your doctor if you gain or lose 2 pounds in a day or 5 pounds in a week.
  • Make changes in your diet under the guidance of a health care professional.
  • If you need to lose weight, ask about special exercises that may also strengthen your chest muscles.