A Breath of Fresh Air: Exercise and COPD

You’re on your way to an appointment and it is on the second floor. There’s no elevator. You stare up from the bottom of the steps and your stomach contracts. You know that by the time you get to the top, your lungs will burn and you will feel a little bit like you’re drowning. Shortness of breath. It’s common for people with COPD.

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease or COPD is a chronic lung condition. People with COPD often have a cough that lasts longer than 3 months, phlegm when you cough and that dreaded feeling of being short of breath. Shortness of breath is a scary!

So when I tell you that exercising will help stop the feeling of being short of breath from coming on, I get a sideways glance.

But it’s true!

Exercise in a form of physiotherapy called pulmonary rehabilitation can actually really help with some of the symptoms of COPD. With COPD, the shortness of breath you feel is because your body isn’t getting enough of the oxygen it needs to function. It demands mimg_2753ore and therefore makes you feel short of breath to get you to breathe more deeply and get more air.

When you exercise, your body gets better at taking oxygen from the air and using it throughout your body. Therefore, the more you exercise, the better your body is able to handle its need for oxygen. It makes you then feel less short of breath and more able to do the things you want to each day.

Exercise (both cardio and weights) can improve your quality of life if you have COPD. Persons with COPD experience tend to feel more tired and this is because it takes more work to breathe and do activities. Exercise in a pulmonary rehab program makes this better too. Just like with the shortness of breath, when you exercise and your body gets stronger and fitter, it is more able to move and therefore you don’t get tired as easily.

Consulting with a physiotherapist and doing a physiotherapy program is a great way to get started because there are certain things you need to consider.

If you want to get started on an exercise program, there is some things you want to remember

1. If you use oxygen sometimes, make sure it is on hand in case you push too much. Ideally you won’t need it. For safety, make sure you have It with you.

2. Know what your oxygen levels are like. You want to push yourself but push yourself appropriately. Too much can cause too much of a dip. Monitor it.

3. Strength training and cardio can both be great parts of an exercise program. Staying strong and having endurance are excellent goals.

4. You know your body – if in doubt or worried, talk to your doctor or physiotherapist.

5. The breathing muscles can get trained too!

I know it can be scary, but take it one step at a time. You can make it to the top of the stairs.


Sahin, H., Varol, Y., Naz, I., Aksel, N., Tuksavul, F., & Ozsoz, A. (2016). The effect of pulmonary rehabilitation on COPD exacerbation frequency per year. The Clinical Respiratory Journal, doi:10.1111/crj.12507 [doi]

Saunders, T., Campbell, N., Jason, T., Dechman, G., Hernandez, P., Thompson, K., & Blanchard, C. M. (2016). Objectively measured Steps/Day in patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Journal of Physical Activity & Health, , 1-25. doi:2016-0087 [pii]

Spruit, M. A., Burtin, C., De Boever, P., Langer, D., Vogiatzis, I., Wouters, E. F., & Franssen, F. M. (2016). COPD and exercise: Does it make a difference? Breathe (Sheffield, England), 12(2), e38-49. doi:10.1183/20734735.003916 [doi]

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Christina Prevett

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