What is Exercise Tolerance?

People with COPD have a reduced capacity for exercise

senior man weight lifting
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Exercise tolerance refers to the exercise capacity of an individual as measured by their ability to endure exercise and/or the maximum workload achieved during the exercise period. Exercise tolerance can be measured accurately during an exercise tolerance test.

People with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD, have a reduced capacity for exercise/activity due to dyspnea and fatigue, which stem from an inadequate oxygen supply within the body.

Over time, even the slightest tasks, such as getting dressed, can cause difficulty.

Fortunately, research shows that getting regular exercise can reduce COPD symptoms, improve energy, increase endurance and help you feel better over all.

Here’s what you need to know about starting an exercise program with COPD.

Before Beginning Exercise

If you have COPD, visit your doctor before beginning any exercise program. Your doctor will likely have you perform an exercise tolerance test. Also called a stress test, the exercise tolerance test, or ETT, involves walking on a treadmill at varying levels of difficulty while being connect to an electrocardiogram or ECG.

During the test, your doctor will monitor your blood pressure, heart rate, and EKG before, during and after activity using electrodes attached to your chest. The test begins with you lying down at rest, then again while standing. Next, you will be asked to walk on a treadmill at varying speeds.

After the test results have been interpreted, your doctor will give you guidelines for starting an exercise program. Be sure to ask lots of questions so you are clear about how long you should exercise for and how often, the types of exercises to do and not to do, and if you will need to make any changes to your medication timing or dosages.

Exercising With COPD

Your doctor should help you to develop an exercise program that includes stretching, strength training and cardiovascular exercise.

Stretching exercises include the slow lengthening of the muscles, which, when done regularly, increases your range of motion and flexibility. This should be done before exercising to prepare the muscles for activity and prevent injury and after exercising to cool down and prevent muscle strain.

Strength training involves repeated muscle contractions or tightening until the muscle becomes tired. In patients with COPD, upper body strengthening exercises are especially helpful for people to increase the strength of your respiratory muscles.

Cardiovascular or aerobic exercises, such as walking, jogging, cycling, rowing, dancing and water aerobics, use large muscle groups to strengthen the heart and lungs and improve the body’s ability to use oxygen. While this may be difficult at first for people with COPD, research shows getting regular cardiovascular exercise can improve your breathing, and decrease your heart rated and blood pressure.

Be sure to follow your doctor's exercise instructions precisely and to contact the office if you have any questions, concerns or pain during exercise.


COPD Exercise & Activity Guidelines. Cleveland Clinic website. http://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/diseases_conditions/hic_Understanding_COPD/hic_Coping_with_COPD/hic_COPD_Exercise_and_Activity_Guidelines. Updated June 8, 2015. Accessed February 9, 2016.  

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