December 19, 2023

Have COPD? Exercise Can Help Keep You Out of the Hospital

Get improved quality of life and breathe better

close up of a person with oxygen supply in nose

In general, regular exercise offers many health benefits.

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For people living with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) — a family of chronic, progressive lung diseases that includes chronic bronchitis and emphysema — staying active is especially important.

A COPD flare-up can be very serious and even land you in the emergency room. But you can take steps — literally — to avoid that urgent care trip by adding regular exercise to your weekly routine.

Let’s take a closer at exercise and COPD with pulmonologist Humberto Choi, MD.

Why is exercise important if I live with COPD?

Whether your COPD is mild, moderate or severe, regular exercise can ease your symptoms. These include shortness of breath, chronic cough, fatigue, wheezing and chest tightness, says Dr. Choi.

Exercise, especially aerobic exercise, can also boost your quality of life while providing benefits like:

  • Improved circulation in your body.
  • Higher energy levels so you can do more activities without becoming tired or short of breath.
  • Strengthening your heart and cardiovascular system.
  • Increased endurance.
  • Lower blood pressure.
  • Improved muscle tone and strength, plus better balance and joint flexibility.
  • Strengthened bones.
  • Reduced body fat and a healthier weight.
  • Less stress, tension, anxiety and depression.
  • A boost in self-image and self-esteem as you become more fit and healthy.
  • Better sleep to leave you more rested.

Exercise benefits for mild COPD

For mild COPD, try a light cardio program, such as walking or swimming. Dr. Choi suggests working up to a routine with 30 minutes of activity five days a week. This benefits you in three ways:

  1. Your lungs won’t have to work as hard. Regular exercise can lower your resting heart rate and blood pressure, so your body can use oxygen more efficiently.
  2. You’ll be less susceptible to flare-ups. Participating in cardio and strength training will help strengthen your chest muscles and improve your breathing.
  3. You may lose weight. The less you weigh, the easier it is for your lungs to do their job.

Exercise benefits for moderate to severe COPD

If your COPD is moderate or severe, a pulmonary rehabilitation program can be a life-changer. “The hardest part of my job is convincing people to go to pulmonary rehabilitation,” shares Dr. Choi. “But I’ve never had anybody who went to rehab who didn’t love it.”

In pulmonary rehab, an expert team helps create an exercise program tailored to your needs. A respiratory therapist trained in exercise physiology first tests your exercise capacity, or what level of activity you’re up for doing. Then, the team determines a routine that fits your areas.

Most pulmonary rehabilitation programs focus on breathing exercises, cardio exercise and resistance training, as well as proper use of inhalers. Typically, you participate in three weekly sessions for eight to 10 weeks.

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Once you complete the program, your exercise capacity is reassessed. The team then helps you develop a year-long exercise plan to sustain your progress. Dr. Choi says the success of the program convinces people to stick with it.

“It is important for people to continue to apply everything they learned during the rehab program ­— especially continuing to exercise ­— so the benefit is long-term,” he adds.

The benefits of completing a pulmonary rehabilitation program are many and lasting. They include:

  • Fewer flare-ups.
  • Fewer visits to the ER or urgent care.
  • A better quality of life.
  • Less anxiety.
  • Decreased shortness of breath.

“You’ll feel better at the end of the program and learn more about your lung condition,” reassures Dr. Choi. “People also tend to have fewer hospitalizations than people who don’t complete rehabilitation.”

If you’re not a candidate for pulmonary rehabilitation, regular exercise such as walking will still benefit you.

What type of exercise is best?

So, are you ready to get started? Here are a few types of exercise that often work wonders if you have COPD.

Stretching

Stretching your arms and legs before and after exercising helps prepare your muscles for activity and helps prevent injury and muscle strains. Regular stretching also increases your range of motion and flexibility.

Cardiovascular or low-impact aerobic

This type of exercise strengthens your heart and lungs while improving your body’s ability to use oxygen. Over time, aerobic exercise can help decrease your heart rate and blood pressure while improving your breathing (as your heart won’t have to work as hard during exercise).

Aerobic exercises include:

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  • Walking.
  • Jogging.
  • Jumping rope.
  • Bicycling (stationary or outdoor).
  • Cross-country skiing.
  • Skating.
  • Rowing.
  • Low-impact water aerobics.

Strengthening

These are repeated muscle contractions (tightening) until your muscle becomes tired. Strengthening exercises for the upper body are especially beneficial for people living with COPD, as they help increase the strength of your respiratory muscles.

How often should you exercise?

The frequency of an exercise program is how often you exercise. In general, to achieve maximum benefits, you should gradually work up to an exercise session lasting 20 to 30 minutes at least three to four times a week. Exercising every other day will help you keep a regular exercise schedule.

Breathing during exercise

Always breathe slowly to save your breath. Inhale through your nose, keeping your mouth closed. This warms and moisturizes the air you breathe and at the same, time filters it.

Know this, too:

  • Breathing out slowly and gently through pursed lips permits more complete lung action as the oxygen you inhale is exchanged for the carbon dioxide you exhale.
  • Aim to inhale for two seconds and exhale for four seconds. You might find slightly shorter or longer periods are more natural for you. If so, just try to breathe out twice as long as you breathe in.
  • Exercise won’t harm your lungs. When you experience shortness of breath during an activity, this is an indication that your body needs more oxygen. If you slow your rate of breathing and concentrate on exhaling through pursed lips, you’ll restore oxygen to your system more rapidly.

Talk to your healthcare provider first

If you’re interested in pulmonary rehabilitation, ask your doctor to refer you to a program that follows American Heart Association guidelines. Choose either a COPD-specific program or one that’s staffed by people experienced in COPD.

Exercise can seem daunting, but it can make living with COPD much easier. “You may think you’re not up for it — but you won’t regret it,” encourages Dr. Choi.

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