COPD Exercise Essentials: Breathe, Move, Thrive

Exercise not only helps improve your breathing but also contributes to overall physical well-being and mental health.

Exercising can be challenging for people with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), especially if they often feel short of breath and are physically limited in their movement. However, the right kind and amount of exercise can actually improve COPD symptoms. Here’s how.

The benefits of physical activity

Exercise increases your blood circulation and helps your heart send more oxygen to your body. Over time, it strengthens your respiratory muscles, making it easier to breathe. Moderate exercise can also improve:

• Energy levels

• Mental health

• Self-esteem


• Shortness of breath

• Cardiovascular fitness

• Muscle strength


Avoiding physical activity can cause the body to become deconditioned, which means that people will be even more likely to experience shortness of breath and fatigue when they exercise. On the other hand, regular moderate exercise conditions the body and builds strength, endurance, and stamina. So even though in the short term, exercise can make it difficult to breathe, in the long run, it actually makes it easier!

Exercise Options

Before you begin exercising, talk to your doctor or health care team about what types of exercise, as well as what intensity and frequency will be a good fit for you. You might also seek support from a physical therapist, exercise physiologist, or personal trainer to help you come up with a customized exercise plan that works for your specific needs.

Pulmonary rehabilitation

A pulmonary rehabilitation program combines exercise training, education, and support to help you manage your symptoms and improve your quality of life. It consists of education and exercise classes that will teach you about your lungs and COPD, how to breathe with maximum effectiveness, and how to exercise in a way that improves your symptoms. The exercise classes are done in a group setting, which allows you to connect with other people who understand what you’re going through. Your doctor or health care provider can refer you to a qualified pulmonary rehabilitation program. There might be one close to you.

Aerobic exercise

Aerobic exercises like walking, biking, and swimming strengthen the respiratory system, which allows you to use oxygen more efficiently. One of the best exercises for people with COPD is walking. The Journal of the COPD Foundation found that patients who walked at least 60 minutes per day reduced their COPD hospitalization rate by 50 percent. Using an indoor stationary or recumbent bike is also a great option, as it allows you to work on your cardio regardless of the weather.

Resistance training

Resistance, or strength training, helps strengthen your muscles and bones. This form of exercise improves muscle strength by working specific muscle groups against external resistance, such as weights or resistance bands. This wards off fragility and helps keep you mobile.


Stretching and flexibility exercises work to relax your body and your mind. Proper stretching and warm-ups help prepare the body for exercise. Likewise, it’s important to stretch and cool down after activity to prevent injury. Stretching can also enhance coordination and breathing. Yoga and Pilates are both examples of stretching exercises that integrate breath work with stretching, aerobics, and strength training.

Below are some exercises that can help boost your physical activity and overall well-being. Whether you prefer a group setting or prefer to go solo, these activities offer a range of options to get you moving and motivated.


Example exercises

• Walking up and down the hallway or to the end of the driveway and back

• Stationary cycling for 5 minutes, three times a day

• Climbing several stairs

• Seated upper body and arm exercises (with or without light weights)

• Chair yoga class

Safety is paramount when engaging in any exercise routine. The last thing you want is to get injured, which can set back your progress significantly. It’s crucial to start slowly and gradually increase the intensity of your workouts over time. Always listen to your body and don’t push yourself beyond your limits. Incorporating breaks into your exercise regimen can help prevent overexertion and reduce the risk of injury. Remember that a safe and gradual approach to fitness is the key to long-term success and well-being.


Exercise safety tips

• Start low and go slow. Short bouts of low-intensity exercise are best for beginners.

• Plan to exercise when your long-acting medicine is at its peak.

• Always bring your rescue inhalers and use them as needed—your doctor may recommend using an inhaler before your workout.

• Be sure to notice when you are getting short of breath. Pause, take a break, and catch your breath as often as you need to.

• Do not exercise if you have a fever or infection, feel nauseated, have chest pain, or are out of oxygen.

Regular exercise and quality nutrition

will help you manage your COPD symptoms and achieve the best quality of life possible. To learn more about nutrition and COPD, click here.


Frequently Asked Questions

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to exercise with a chronic medical condition.

Good phrases to remember are, “Try to move your body more,” “Practice movement that you enjoy,” and “Your movement does not have to look like anybody else’s.”

It is important for people with COPD to conserve their energy for many tasks of daily life, such as eating, cooking, dressing, bathing, and essential activities like shopping and work, so your exercise plan should take into account all of these factors.

If you use supplemental oxygen, you should exercise with it. Work with your doctor to adjust your oxygen to your physical activity needs.

It is generally recommended that people with COPD gradually increase their physical activity to prevent overdoing it. Some people may be able to slowly build up to 20- to 30-minute sessions, three to four times a week.

Take slow breaths. Breathe before starting the exercise and breathe out through the most difficult part of the exercise. Purse your lips while breathing out. Try to extend your exhale so that it is longer than your inhale. Check our breathing techniques page!