Ease Shortness of Breath with Exercise

The thought of exercising when you have chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) may seem daunting, given the condition's trademark shortness of breath. But most doctors agree that exercise is a safe and effective way to manage COPD and boost quality of life. And recent research has shown that regular activity can help keep severe flare-ups at bay.

COPD is an umbrella term for progressive respiratory diseases such as emphysema and chronic bronchitis, which cause reduced airflow from the lungs, as well as breathing difficulties. An estimated 12 million Americans have been diagnosed with the condition.

One recent study found that among patients who had recently been hospitalized for a COPD exacerbation, those who regularly engaged in moderate to vigorous physical activity, such as brisk walking, were 34 percent less likely than inactive patients to be readmitted within the next 30 days.

Yet people with COPD average only six minutes a day of meaningful physical activity. Breathing problems and fatigue often prevent individuals with the condition from exercising in the first place.

Pulmonary Rehab

One solution to overcoming exercise obstacles is to enroll in a medically supervised pulmonary rehabilitation program, typically offered in outpatient hospital settings. Everyone with COPD—whether it is mild, moderate or severe—is a good candidate for rehabilitation.

These programs also provide advice on breathing control, depression, stress management, smoking cessation and proper use of medications and supplemental oxygen. Most programs last four to 12 weeks. After completing the program, you must continue to be active, or else you'll soon lose any gains you made.

Pulmonary rehabilitation involves a variety of exercises to help manage breathing and build both upper- and lower-body strength. Aerobic exercise, such as treadmill walking or stationary cycling, helps the body use oxygen more efficiently, allowing you to expend less energy to breathe.

If you have difficulty exercising continuously without stopping, interval training—which pairs short bursts of high-intensity exercise with periods of rest or low-intensity activity—may be a good alternative. Resistance, or strength, training involves weights or equipment such as resistance bands to build strength in the upper body, which can aid breathing. Other exercises work the legs and arms, making daily activities feel less tiring.

To find a pulmonary rehabilitation program in your area, ask your doctor for a referral. Or contact the American Lung Association (www.lungusa.org or 800-LUNGUSA).

Exercise Precautions

  • If you've been prescribed oxygen for regular use, then use it during exercise.
  • Don't exercise outdoors on high-ozone days or on days that are very cold, hot or humid. Extreme temperatures can make breathing difficult.
  • If your exercise regimen has been interrupted for a few days, be sure to reduce your activity level when you resume and then gradually build up to your regular schedule.
  • If your medications change, ask your doctor if they will affect your ability to exercise.
  • Stop exercising if you feel dizzy or weak, experience palpitations or have pain. If you are experiencing a great deal of pain or discomfort, you should call your doctor.

From our sister publication REMEDY's Healthy Living Spring 2015

Publication Review By: the Editorial Staff at Healthcommunities.com

Published: 02 Mar 2015

Last Modified: 02 Mar 2015