When Lung Disease Interrupts Your Exercise Routine

Exercise is great for your health, strength, and quality of life. But if you have chronic lung disease, symptoms like shortness of breath may make you afraid to work out.

Lung disease can interrupt your exercise routine, making it harder to be as active or independent as you once were, says Pat Owens, 76, who lives alone in Tucson, AZ. She uses supplemental oxygen to support her breathing during exercises like squats, leg lifts, and balancing on one leg while she holds onto the kitchen sink.

“I also have some exercise and stretching tapes. I walk inside and when I can, I walk outside too. I do all my own housework, shopping, and laundry,” says Owens, who has chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). “I try to stay as active as I can, so I can continue to care for myself. My only obstacle is that I can’t move around as fast as I used to. It takes me longer to do things, but at least I get things done.”

If you haven’t exercised for a while due to lung disease, start again slowly, says pulmonologist Albert Rizzo, MD, chief medical officer of the American Lung Association.

“Just pace yourself. Listen to your body and slowly increase your activity,” he says. “Exercise is so important for building your muscle strength and breathing, but also improves your mood. You can even do exercises while you’re sitting in a chair. It can be something simple, like walking back and forth to your mailbox or around the block.”

Stronger Lungs, Heart

Somer Love, 41, was a high school swimmer, diver, and cheerleader, and enjoyed skiing and volleyball growing up in Utah. She has cystic fibrosis, a chronic lung disease with symptoms like shortness of breath, congestion, and frequent infections that can keep her from being active.

“Some days, just walking to the bathroom or kitchen can be exhausting. When I am able to, I go on walks outside. Maybe that’s because we are living through a global pandemic, and it’s my only way to be out in the world and not quarantined away,” Love says. “I live for my walks and so does my dog, Tulip. I am grateful for those days that I’m able to get outside and make it happen.”

Love tries to do resistance exercises for muscle tone and to help her clear and strengthen her lungs. If her chronic lung disease sidelines her at times, she may start up again with just 1 or 2 minutes of bouncing on a small rebounder trampoline. “Something else I’m really proud of is that this year, I found my inner yogi as well. I’ve really enjoyed experimenting with yoga and listening to my body.”

Overcome Fears

Lung disease symptoms may make you afraid to exercise, but it’s actually good for your lungs, says Frank C. Sciurba, MD, director of the Emphysema/COPD Research Center at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.

“Your reflex is to avoid any activity that may trigger your shortness of breath. You can become deconditioned and out of shape,” Sciurba says. “If you get more exercise, you’ll be able to do more and your conditioning will improve. You may be afraid to push yourself if you have shortness of breath.”

Pulmonary rehab, where a respiratory therapist shows you how to safely exercise, build strength and stamina, and breathe more efficiently, may help you get active again.

“You may start out with strength exercises with resistance bands, light weights, or squats, then work up to walking on a treadmill,” he says. Upper-body exercises help improve breathing too. “The muscles you use when you’re short of breath are the same as the ones you use when you do arm work. Train your muscles to do those moves without shortness of breath.”

Lung disease can make once-doable activities now seem very hard, and that’s scary, says Trina Limberg, a respiratory therapist at Pulmonary Care Consulting and Training in San Diego, CA.

“If your muscles decondition, you may feel that your legs can’t support your body weight or your arms can’t handle carrying groceries,” Limberg says. “You have more breathlessness during ordinary activities, and your world starts to shrink.”

Lung disease often causes depression or anxiety too, she says. If symptoms interrupt activities you enjoy, like playing golf, your self-esteem can plummet. Rehab can help you exercise safely with less breathlessness.

“You can learn to use your lungs more efficiently and learn pacing and new breathing techniques. You can achieve high levels of fitness that can be surprising and very encouraging.”

Oxygen and Oximeters

If you have supplemental oxygen, be sure to use it when you exercise. Your doctor can adjust your flow rate to support your breathing during workouts.

“If I’m going to exercise, I need oxygen,” says Valerie Chang, who has COPD. She uses portable oxygen concentrators with extra batteries on walks or when she uses a rowing machine at her Honolulu home. “I listen to podcasts while I row. One of the advantages of rowing is that you can stay stationary. I can plug in my oxygen and row, and just think or meditate while I exercise.”

You can also use a pulse oximeter, a small device clipped to your finger that tests oxygen levels in your blood, when you work out, Rizzo says. Don’t be alarmed if the number drops during a strenuous activity. “Just slow down and let your number come back up.”

Stay Positive

Love knows she may need a lung transplant one day. She says that regular exercise could help her delay surgery, and it has also improved her sleep quality and energy levels.

“It’s not always easy. I can’t just walk out my front door and go on a walk. There’s a lot that I have to factor in, such as air quality, the temperature, if I have a full oxygen tank. I have to have my pulse oximeter in my hand at all times,” she says.

A year ago, an infection caused Love’s lung function to plummet. She didn’t know if she could rebound and exercise again, but she started slowly to build stamina and confidence.

“A cold or virus can be devastating for someone with chronic lung disease. So, I just started moving, taking baby steps, walking short distances, and experimenting with yoga,” she says. She slowly extended her walks and held yoga poses longer each time. She takes online yoga classes designed for people with advanced lung disease on a platform called Beam. “Seeing my body begin to heal and feel stronger again was exciting and energizing. I was hooked, and dare I say, I started loving exercise again.”

Show Sources


American Lung Association: “Physical Activity and COPD,” “The Basics of Pulmonary Rehabilitation.”

National Jewish Hospital: “Living With Chronic Lung Disease.”

Pat Owens, patient, Tucson, AZ.

Albert Rizzo, MD, American Lung Association, Newark, DE.

Somer Love, patient, Midvale, UT.

Cystic Fibrosis Foundation: “About Cystic Fibrosis.”

Frank C. Sciurba, MD, University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, Pittsburgh.

Trina Limberg, Pulmonary Care Consulting and Training, San Diego, CA.

Valerie Chang, patient, Honolulu.

Minnesota Department of Health: “Oxygen Levels, Pulse Oximeters, and Covid-19.”

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