What Is Pulmonary Rehab for COPD?

Medically Reviewed by Paul Boyce, MD on March 01, 2024
3 min read

When you’re living with chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder, or COPD, everyday activities such as walking or climbing stairs can get harder. That’s where pulmonary rehabilitation comes in.

Basically, it’s a formal program that will build your fitness and help you breathe as well as you possibly can. Pulmonary rehab will help you with:

To join a program, you’ll probably need a referral from your doctor and a test that shows you’ve had COPD in the past year.

You might work with a team of specialists -- ranging from dietitians to social workers -- who will figure out the best plan for your case. It’s often done on an outpatient basis, meaning you will not check in anywhere, at a hospital or clinic. Or you may get it at your home.

Learn more about the most important features of these programs:

The key to any pulmonary rehab program for COPD is exercise, which will help your lungs and heart work better.

Here’s some more about these exercises, which may be one-on-one with a trainer or in a group:

Lower body: Most rehab centers offer a set of exercises that center on leg workouts. They vary from simply walking on a treadmill or around a track to more intense stair climbing. Most of the proven benefits of pulmonary rehab are shown in studies of people doing leg exercises.

Upper body: The muscles in the upper body are important for breathing, as well as for daily activities. Arm and chest exercises might include turning a crank against resistance or just lifting your arms against gravity.

Breathing: Blowing through a mouthpiece against resistance may increase the strength of your breathing muscles. These exercises may be helpful for people with very weak breathing muscles.

Strength training: Most pulmonary rehab exercises focus on building endurance. Adding strength training, such as lifting weights, has been shown to be helpful as well.

Many pulmonary rehab programs offer group or one-on-one education sessions to help you learn to better manage your COPD. Sessions might focus on things such as:

  • Understanding your medication treatment plan. This includes using your inhaler the right way and using it regularly.
  • How to get the most out of oxygen therapy if you are using this treatment
  • If you’re a smoker, help with quitting
  • Eating a healthy diet

Studies show that people who learn about their COPD and treatment plan are better able to spot symptoms of a flare-up and take the right action.

People with severe COPD have a great chance of being depressed or anxious. This can make you less interested in pleasurable activities, including sex.

Some pulmonary rehab programs offer relaxation training and counseling.

You’ll also get a chance to meet other people who have COPD and share your questions and feelings.

Most people who finish a pulmonary rehab course feel better at the end. You’re usually able to do more things without becoming short of breath.

In a large analysis of some programs, nearly all people in pulmonary rehab had seen their symptoms get better. Almost all of them reported feeling:

  • Less short of breath
  • More energetic
  • More in control of their COPD

Being in rehab may help prevent you from going to the hospital because of COPD flare-ups, or “exacerbations.” Even people with advanced lung disease can get something out of rehab.

For people who keep up their exercise level, the benefits from pulmonary rehab can last for years. Be sure to use a certified program -- you can ask your doctor for a referral to find the program that’s right for you.