Breathing Exercises For COPD

By Matthew Cenzon. May 7th 2016

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, commonly referred to as COPD, is used to categorize diseases that make it difficult for a person to breathe. Those diagnosed with a COPD will find that their condition grows worse over time, making exercise and daily function very difficult. Common symptoms associated with COPD include:

  • Severe, chronic cough
  • Wheezing
  • Shortness of breath and difficulty breathing
  • Excessive mucus
  • Tight chest pain

These symptoms can flare up due to COPD exacerbation, which are commonly caused by some form of bacteria or virus affecting the respiratory system, like a lung infection. Some people are more susceptible to COPD exacerbation and suffer from a faster disease progression, mainly due to declining health and a weakened immune system. This makes breathing exercises and exercise, in general, important for those living with COPD.

How COPD Affects Breathing

Healthy, functioning airways in the lungs are elastic, meaning they will always return to their original shape after being stretched when filled with air. The more elastic these airways are, the more efficient they are at allowing air to pass quickly. This is important for proper breathing, especially during times when they body requires more oxygen, like after physical activity or exercising. A person suffering from COPD will experience breathing problems because the disease causes the airways to lose their elasticity. This means that the walls no longer return to their original shape, and can even become swollen. The increase in mucus production adds to breathing complications, making it more difficult for air to pass through the lungs.

Emphysema and Chronic Bronchitis

The two most common forms of COPD are chronic bronchitis and emphysema:

  • Emphysema: Emphysema refers specifically to the air sacks in a person's lungs, and their loss of elasticity. Normal air sacks are able to stretch as they are filled with air, and return to normal as the air moves throughout the lungs. The loss of elasticity means the air sacks are damaged and can no longer stretch, preventing air from flowing efficiently.
  • Chronic bronchitis: Chronic bronchitis refers to inflamed airways and the generation of excessive mucus. When combined, these two symptoms lead to blocked or narrow airways, making breathing more difficult.

Exercise and Lifestyle Changes

The most common cause of a chronic obstructive pulmonary disease is smoking, therefore, one of the first lifestyle changes a person diagnosed with COPD needs to do is quit smoking, immediately. The next step would be to make improvements to one's health through exercising, which would extend lung function by slowing the progressive disease. However, those diagnosed with COPD will find exercise to be more difficult than ever before. Breathing complications and blocked airways can limit a person to the amount of exercise he or she is capable of performing. Sudden shortness of breath after only a few minutes of exercise can also leave a person feeling dejected, giving up on any form of physical activity all-together.

Breathing Exercises for COPD

Those diagnosed with COPD may find the use of special breathing exercises to be helpful for physical activity and regular, daily function. These exercises were designed to help strengthen the respiratory muscles while minimizing the amount of energy required for normal breathing. While it is advised to seek guidance and aid from a respiratory therapist, a person diagnosed with COPD can try these breathing exercises at home to improve his or her condition:

  • Pursed-lip breathing exercises: These breathing exercises are performed by inhaling through the nose, then exhaling through pursed lips, as if one where about to whistle or pucker up for a kiss. A regular inhalation through the nose should last roughly two seconds, and exhalation from the pursed-lips should last anywhere from four to six seconds.
  • Diaphragm breathing exercises: These breathing exercises are to be practiced while lying flat on one's back. Pillows can be placed under the knees for support, while one hand is placed on the stomach, below the rib cage. A small object, like a book, can also be substituted for one's hand. The exercise requires a person to breathe normally, allowing the hand or object to rise during inhalation and fall when exhaling. The chest should remain still, and the stomach muscles should slightly tighten upon exhalation.

COPD Exercise Tips

  • Practice the COPD breathing exercises daily to improve lung function.
  • When performing any exercises or physical activity, always start off slow to allow the body to warm up.
  • Shortness of breath doesn't mean you should necessarily stop doing what you're doing. Slow down, and allow yourself to catch your breath, then ease your way back into your exercise.
  • Avoid heavy, strenuous exercises, but stay active. Try low-impact exercises.
  • Avoid a hot or cold shower immediately after exercising.
  • Always consult your physician before starting a new exercise regimen.


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