The Best Exercises for COPD Patients

Exercise and COPD Go Hand-in-Hand - Get Started Today

A man with COPD walks on a trail.
Importance of exercise with COPD and how to get started today. Sam Diephuis/Getty Images

Exercise and COPD are two words that people with COPD may dread seeing in the same sentence. Shortness of breath, weakness and lack of energy often tie into this fear. But learning the basics of exercising when you have COPD will get you well on your way to living a healthier lifestyle and simply feeling better each and every day. Here's why exercise can help you feel better, some of the best exercises for COPD patients, and how to increase your energy level safely.

Why You Should Exercise with COPD

There are many reasons why exercise is beneficial for people with COPD. Take a good look at these reasons. Imagine yourself experiencing these benefits. Then read on about how to get started. Physical activity can benefit people with COPD in many ways, including:

  • Helping your body to utilize the oxygen you breathe in more efficiently
  • Increasing your energy level and reducing fatigue
  • Increasing walking distance
  • Increasing your strength
  • Reducing shortness of breath
  • Reducing depression and other mood disorders
  • Improving cognitive function
  • Managing weight if you are overweight (excess weight means a greater requirement for oxygen in the body)
  • Promoting socialization (people with COPD often become isolated from others)
  • Fewer hospitalizations
  • Improving your overall quality of life

If that isn't enough, all of these benefits work together to help reduce COPD exacerbations.

Taking the First Steps

In order to obtain lasting results from exercise, you must develop a life-long commitment to it.

This means exercising even when you don't feel like it. The phrase "fake it till you make it" may come in handy at this point. The following steps will help you assess your own personal exercise needs:

  1. Talk to your doctor. Before beginning any type of exercise program, it is important to speak with your health care provider to make sure the program you choose is safe. If there are reasons that may prevent you from doing certain types of exercises, your doctor can discuss possible alternatives that may better suit you. Your doctor will also be able to tell you if using oxygen during exercise will be necessary.
  1. Set goals. You will reap the greatest rewards from exercising if you work toward a reachable goal. Determine what your goals are by writing them down. Keep your goals in mind when you hit a rough spot that may cause you to feel discouraged. Whether your goals are to breathe better or to rely less on others, identifying your goals will help you better accomplish them. Many people skip this step, thinking the time to journal exercise less important than actually doing the exercise, but making and keeping a record of your progress is wonderful incentive to continue on those days when you just don't feel like exercising.
  2. Exercise with a friend/be accountable to someone. If you have someone who can exercise alongside of you, all the better. Being accountable to another can help bridge the gap on those days you're tempted to give up.
  3. Identify how far you can go. When you first start to exercise, you may quickly become fatigued. Don't be discouraged. It is important that you initially to determine the level of exercise that feels safe and comfortable for you. As your endurance level builds, you will be able to exercise longer with less effort.
  1. Ask about pulmonary rehabilitation. Many patients benefit greatly from attending a pulmonary rehabilitation program, especially those who are newly diagnosed with COPD. Pulmonary rehab will teach you about your lungs in great detail, as well as how to exercise and do other activities with less shortness of breath. Visit the American Association of Cardiovascular and Pulmonary Rehabilitation online to find a program in your area.

Types of Exercises

The basics of a safe and effective exercise program include choosing an exercise you will enjoy. There are three types of exercises that you can incorporate in your exercise routine.

Flexibility Exercises

Flexibility exercises are designed to help you improve your range of motion, posture and breathing. You should do these before and after exercising. Flexibility exercises include stretches of your neck, shoulders and calves. Yoga is another form of flexibility exercise that may be beneficial.

Endurance Exercises

Improving your endurance helps improve the function of your lungs, as well as your heart and blood vessels. In the long run, these are the best types of exercises to help you withstand activities of daily living. Endurance exercises (often called cardiovascular endurance) include walking, biking and swimming, among others.

Strength Training

Help build and strengthen your muscles. with strength training. Strong muscles will allow you to perform daily activities, such as housework or mowing the lawn, with less effort. Examples of strength training include lifting weights, body weight exercises and working with stretchy bands.

Breathing During Exercise

Understanding how to properly breathe during exercise will improve your chances for success and sticking with a program. Doing pursed-lip breathing during exercise will help you maintain adequate oxygen levels and reduce shortness of breath. In addition, always try to exhale, or breathe out, during the most difficult part of the exercise, and inhale, or breathe in, during the easiest part of the exercise. For example, exhale when you raise your arms above your head, and inhale as you lower them.

Using the Dyspnea Scale During Workouts

The dyspnea scale measures shortness of breath and ranges from zero to 10, which is very, very severe. You can use the dyspnea scale during exercise to determine how hard you are working to breathe, and then pace yourself accordingly. For example, if your shortness of breath is slight, you are at a level one. If your shortness of breath is moderate, you are at a level three. You are at a level five if you feel that your shortness of breath is severe, and if you cannot catch your breath at all, you are at a level 10. Keeping your level of dyspnea between levels three and five is best during exercise, unless your doctor or pulmonary rehabilitation team tells you otherwise.

Recognizing Signs of Overexertion

While exercise is strongly encouraged, it's important to know your limits. Stop exercising if you notice any of the following signs of overexertion:

  • Unusual or an increasing level of shortness of breath
  • Chest discomfort or chest pain
  • Burning, pressure, tightness or heaviness in your chest
  • Unusual pain in your jaw, neck, shoulders, arms or back
  • A racing feeling in your heart
  • Heart palpitations (feeling that your heart is skipping a beat)
  • Lightheadedness or dizziness
  • Nausea
  • Feeling more tired than usual
  • Unusual pain in the joints

Need some ideas on the right exercise program for you? Check out the Top 10 Exercise Videos for People with COPD.

Sources:

Emtner, M., and K. Wadell. Effets of Exercise Training in Patients with Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease—A Narrative Review for FYSS (Swedish Physical Activity Exercise Prescription Book). British Journal of Sports Medicine. 2016. 50(6):368-71.

Morris, N., Walsh, J., Adams, L., and J. Alision. Exercise Training in COPD: What is it About Intensity?. Respirology. 2016. 21(7):1185-92.

Spruit, M., Burtin, C., De Boever, P. et al. COPD and Exercise: Does it Make a Difference?. Breathe. 2016. 12(2):e38-49.

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