What Are the Best Exercises for COPD?

Feeling motivated to exercise can be hard for anyone, but it can be even harder if you have COPD.

COPD causes weakness, lack of energy and of course shortness of breath– none of which make it easy to motivate yourself for a trip to the gym. But no matter how difficult it can be, research shows that it’s extremely important for individuals with COPD to get exercise. Living a sedentary lifestyle can worsen your COPD symptoms, which will cause your motivation to sink even lower. This can result in a domino effect causing worse health, lessened quality of life, and even depression.

If you have COPD, developing a worthwhile fitness regimen that fits with your pulmonary rehabilitation plan can have a profound impact on your daily life. So we’re taking a look at the types of exercise that our COPD patients say worked well for them.

COPD patient doing cardio exercise with her daughter

(Be sure that you let your primary care physician know about what exercises you plan on trying. They may have some additional advice that is specific to you and your case.)

Flexibility Exercises

Flexibility is an important part of fitness for anyone. Most athletes stretch before and after their workout to prevent injury and minimize soreness– and so should you! One benefit for COPD patients is that flexibility-based exercise is often linked with better breathing, benefitting you in more than one way. Great examples of flexibility-based workouts include:

  • Pilates
  • Yoga
  • Stretching

Remember to start slowly and honor your body’s needs. If you plan on attending a class at a gym or studio, you can call in advance to see which ones are easiest. Once you’re in the class, make sure to listen to your body rather than pushing too hard. Keep in mind that just doing some gentle stretches at home can be a great place to start.

Aerobic/Cardiovascular Exercises

Aerobic exercise and cardiovascular exercise are similar but not quite the same. Aerobic exercise is when you move large muscle groups in a steady and rhythmic way. It helps improve your body’s ability to use oxygen. Cardiovascular exercise (often referred to as “cardio”) is a steady aerobic activity that strengthens your heart and lungs.

Some benefits of aerobics and cardio for COPD patients include:

  • Improved circulation, which allows your body to use oxygen more efficiently
  • Reduced stress, anxiety, and depression
  • Improved breathing due to decreasing your resting heart rate and blood pressure
  • Decreased shortness of breath from have built up endurance

So what are some good ways to get that aerobic or cardiovascular exercise into your day? Luckily there are plenty of fun and invigorating options:

  • Walking (try deep breathing as you walk!)
  • Biking
  • Swimming
  • Water aerobics
  • Other low-impact aerobics

Remember to take a rest if you feel short of breath. As you gradually get fitter and stronger, you’ll be able to increase the distance and duration of your workout.

Strength Exercises

Strengthening or resistance exercises break down and rebuild muscle through repeated muscle contractions.

Don’t be overwhelmed when you think about building muscle; like cardio and flexibility training, it can be done at your own pace. Strength training benefits people with COPD in the following ways:

  • It improves skeletal muscle function so you can remain active longer
  • Upper body resistance exercises can help build strength in your respiratory muscles
  • It will eventually make day-to-day activities like mowing the lawn or carrying groceries easier

Strength training is anything that will help your body get stronger. It includes:

  • Resistance band training
  • Body weight exercises
  • Lifting weights

You can start at home with 2 lb weights or even a hardcover book. Simple moves like arm curls, calf raises, and leg extensions can be done almost anywhere. As with any exercise, make sure to run the idea by your doctor before you try something new.

Breathing Exercises

One of the most frustrating parts of exercise (for anyone, especially COPD patients!) is running out of breath. That’s why understanding how to breathe properly is an essential part of your physical activity regimen, and one that will help improve your chances of successfully sticking with a workout plan.

Woman uses deep breathing exercises for her COPD symptoms

Here are 3 breathing exercises we recommend for COPD sufferers:

Pursed-lip Breathing

One way to maintain adequate oxygen levels while working out and to strengthen your diaphragm over time is to do pursed-lip breathing exercises. This is how you do them:

  • Relax your upper body
  • Breathe in through your nose for the count of three
  • Purse your lips as though you were blowing out a candle and breathe out through your mouth for approximately twice as long as you inhaled

Deep Breathing

This is another great exercise that will help strengthen your lungs. Deep breathing for COPD works like this:

  • You can start sitting or standing, whichever is more comfortable for you
  • Pull your elbows back firmly
  • Take a deep, full breath
  • Hold it while counting to five
  • Exhale slowly and entirely

Controlled Coughing

This is another suggestion that may seem counterintuitive, since you probably hate the fact that your COPD makes you cough. But the controlled coughing exercise helps make your coughing more effective, rather than just wearing you out! This is how you do it:

  • Sit in a chair with your feet on the floor
  • Lean over a little bit
  • Fold your arms across your stomach
  • Breathe in through your nose
  • Lean forward against your folded arms and exhale
  • Open your mouth slightly
  • Produce three short coughs
  • Breath in through your nose again
  • Rest

It helps to drink plenty of fluids to help keep your mucus loose. Also make sure to avoid deep, quick breaths through your mouth!

Benefits of Exercising with COPD

Since you likely struggle with shortness of breath and general fatigue, it may seem counter-intuitive to partake in an activity known to leave people winded and tired. But people with COPD can experience the flip side of the exercise coin–getting stronger and feeling more energized–just the same as anyone else can. COPD patients will benefit from physical activity in many ways, including:

  • Your oxygen will be used more efficiently
  • You’ll increase your energy levels and reduce fatigue
  • You’ll reduce your shortness of breath
  • Your cognitive function will improve
  • You’ll reduce any depression or other mood disorders
  • You’ll be able to more effectively manage your bodyweight (if you are currently overweight, this requires more oxygen in the body and impacts your COPD)
  • You’ll increase your strength and endurance
  • You’ll avoid COPD-related isolation and become more social
  • You’ll have a decreased risk of hospitalization

Basically, you’ll have an all-around higher quality of life!


COPD is a hard condition to live with, but there are definitely ways to make your life better!

Sometimes you need to implement a “fake it til you make it” mindset because if you’re like most people, you might not feel like exercising every day. However, once you set up a routine and start seeing results, you may even start looking forward to it. It’s always a good idea to ask your doctor questions and get some in-person tips. No matter how your COPD is treating you that day, remember to stay positive and focused on your goals. It’s not always easy, but it’s definitely worth it!

As a final note, we’d like to let you know that we do conduct COPD clinical trials in Port Orange on a regular basis. If you’d like to learn more, please give us a call at (386) 760-7272 or fill out the contact form in the upper right-hand corner. 



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