5 Reasons You Should Exercise If You Have COPD

Senior man exercising
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Exercising with COPD may seem like a double-edged sword. On one hand, patients with COPD may experience shortness of breath with physical exertion. On the other hand, experts say that exercise can actually reduce symptoms associated with COPD. Many patients with COPD hope to reduce their symptoms of shortness of breath, but are hesitant to exercise because exertion worsens their symptoms. Starting an exercise program when you have COPD is no easy task, but here are some of the reasons why it may be worth giving it a try.

  1. Exercise programs improve walking distance and ability to exert oneself. Research has shown that after going through a formal pulmonary rehabilitation program, even patients with mild COPD are able to walk further than they could before starting the program. The exercise program consisted of walking, upper body strength training, and stretching exercises. The class met three times a week for one hour. After doing this program, participants were able to walk further, could climb two flights of stairs faster and performed better on a treadmill test. What’s more is that these benefits were seen primarily in patients with mild to moderate COPD, but even patients with severe COPD had improvements in walking distance.
  2. Exercise decreases shortness of breath and fatigue in patients with COPD. Patients who went through an exercise program reported having less shortness of breath and less fatigue regardless of how severe their COPD was. Reducing these symptoms has significant benefits on quality of life for patients.
  1. Getting outside may decrease depression, improve mood, and promote socialization.  Another benefit of exercise has to due with emotional health and functioning. In a research study of patients with mild COPD, an exercise program showed improvements in emotional function scores. Regardless of whether or not you have COPD, group exercise programs promote socialization and exercise in general may decrease depression, improve mood, and increase energy. This may lead to even more motivation to get out and about.
  1. Aerobic exercise may improve cognitive function (such as the speed of processing information). Though many factors account for cognitive decline in patients with COPD, aerobic exercise may help improve oxygen levels in the brain and therefore may slow the decline of mental processing that is typically seen in older patients, especially those with COPD.
  2. Patients with COPD who complete pulmonary rehabilitation programs have less days in the hospital than those who don’t complete pulmonary rehabilitation programs.  A research study of patients who completed a pulmonary rehabilitation program showed that although the program didn’t affect how often patients were hospitalized, it did show that patients who had done exercise had significantly less days in the hospital (only 10 days versus 21 days in those who did not complete pulmonary rehab programs).

Tips About Exercising

  1. Avoid extreme weather. Patients with COPD tend to have the most exacerbations in the winter and in hot, humid weather. Be sure to keep this in mind before exercising outdoors.
  1. Use a short-acting inhaler (eg. albuterol) 10-15 minutes before exercising. Short-acting inhalers typically take 5-15 minutes to start working and will help open up the airways (ie. reduce bronchospasm) which will enable patients to have fewer symptoms during exercise and be able to exercise more.
  2. Enroll in pulmonary rehabilitationAsk your doctor about structured pulmonary rehabilitation programs. Pulmonary rehab programs have been shown time and time again to improve symptoms and quality of life for patients with COPD. These programs do more than just exercise, they also provide information about which exercises are best for people with COPD, breathing techniques for patients with COPD, and other strategies to improve activity. These programs are usually covered by insurance and provide education and short-term exercise programs to get you started. However, it’s important to keep it up at home after you finish the program or else the benefits will be lost!
  3. Do cardiovascular activity at least three times a week. Work up to 30 minutes of walking at a pace that is comfortable to you, but always do so after discussing exercise with your physician or through a pulmonary rehab program.
  4. Upper arm strength is important to help breathing, especially for patients with COPD. Some upper arm exercises to try: bicep curls, triceps extensions, shoulder flexion, shoulder abduction and shoulder elevation. Try working up to 8 repetitions in 2 sets, but don’t undertake any exercises without proper instruction on the proper technique from either a clinician or exercise specialist.

The Bottom Line

Get out there and do some exercise, no matter how little you can manage. Ask your clinician about pulmonary rehabilitation programs near you and at least give it a try. You might be surprised at how much better you feel after starting an exercise program—even if you have severe COPD. A little extra "umph" can go a long way.


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Etnier J, Johnston R, Dagenbach D, Pollard RJ, Rejeski WJ, Berry M. The relationships among pulmonary function, aerobic fitness, and cognitive functioning in older COPD patients. Chest 1999;116:953-60.

Foglio K, Bianchi L, Bruletti G, Battista L, Pagani M, Ambrosino N. Long-term effectiveness of pulmonary rehabilitation in patients with chronic airway obstruction. Eur Respir J 1999;13:125-32.

Global Initiative for Chronic Obstructive Lung Disease (GOLD) Guidelines, 2014

Griffiths TL, Burr ML, Campbell IA, et al. Results at 1 year of outpatient multidisciplinary pulmonary rehabilitation: a randomised controlled trial. Lancet 2000;355:362-8.

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