Step-by-Step: Exercising With COPD
Exercise is a common prescription for people with COPD. Find out how exercise can help you live with chronic bronchitis or emphysema.

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Picture of man with COPD Step-by-Step: Exercising With COPD

If breathing takes a conscious effort, exercise may be the last thing on your mind. But exercise is often recommended for anyone with COPD. In fact, not exercising can make you weaker, increase your shortness of breath, and lead to depression and loss of independence.

If you have COPD, beginning an exercise program offers many benefits. For instance, it can improve respiratory symptoms. Exercise may also help increase your ability to do daily activities, such as getting dressed and shopping.

And here's the best part: You don't have to run a marathon to get the benefits of exercise. A regular walking routine, for instance, is a relatively light activity that can go a long way toward improving symptoms. Another key to success is to choose something you enjoy. If you like what you do, you will be more likely to stick with it.

Four steps to get going with exercise

  1. Get an OK from your doctor.
    Don't jump right into exercise without first talking with your doctor. The doctor will check your lung function and screen for other problems common in people with COPD, such as heart disease, high blood pressure, and arthritis. The doctor may recommend activity options that are best for you.

  2. Participate in pulmonary rehab.
    Many people with COPD are prescribed pulmonary rehabilitation. This is a supervised exercise program that also teaches you about your lungs and how to live with a lung disease. A successful pulmonary rehab program does more than improve your strength and endurance. You will also gain the knowledge and confidence to continue to exercise on your own.

  3. Build your own exercise program.
    Even if you've had pulmonary rehab, it's important to continue to exercise on your own. If you don't, you will lose any benefits you gained. Consider these guidelines:

    • Types of exercise. Include a combination of aerobic activities, strength training, and stretching. You can build an entire program around walking, which is considered good aerobic exercise for people with COPD. Other good choices for aerobic exercises include swimming or using a stationary bike.
    • Components of a workout. When exercising, always include a warm-up, a conditioning phase, and a cool-down. A warm-up is a 3- to 5-minute period for loosening your muscles with the activity you plan to be doing, but at a lower intensity. The conditioning phase is the most intense portion of your workout. That's when you'll burn the most calories. Finish your workout by cooling down for 3 to 5 minutes with lower-intensity exercise.
    • Medications that may help. Your doctor may prescribe a metered-dose inhaler to use right before exercise to help you breathe easier. Portable, low-flow oxygen may also be recommended.
    • Clothing and hydration. Wear loose-fitting clothing that allows free range of motion. Avoid exercising outside in the cold or when it is too hot. Drink water before exercising and periodically during your workout, even if you don't feel thirsty. But follow any fluid-restriction guidelines from your doctor.
  4. Stop if you feel you are over-exerting yourself or call 9-1-1 for:

    • Extreme difficulty breathing
    • Crushing or tearing chest pain, pressure, heaviness, or tightness
    • Any chest pain, pressure, heaviness, or tightness along with dizziness, lightheadedness, passing out, sweating, nausea, vomiting, palpitations, or very fast, slow, or irregular heartbeat
    • Chest pain that is not relieved by taking nitroglycerin
By Louis Neipris, MD, Staff Writer
Created on 05/02/2011
Updated on 05/19/2011
  • National Jewish Health. Exercises. CPOD: Lifestyle management.
  • National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute. Pulmonary rehabilitation.
  • Global Initiative for Chronic Obstructive Lung Disease. Global strategy for the diagnosis, management, and prevention of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (updated 2009)
  • American Thoracic Society. Patient information. Pulmonary rehabilitation.
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