13 Recommended Physical and Respiratory Exercises for People With COPD

Regular physical and respiratory exercise is good for everyone, but especially for people with COPD. In this case, it's best to make it a daily routine.
13 Recommended Physical and Respiratory Exercises for People With COPD
Leidy Mora Molina

Reviewed and approved by the nurse Leidy Mora Molina.

Written by Edith Sánchez

Last update: 06 December, 2022

Physical inactivity is inconvenient for COPD patients and therefore, certain adapted exercises for people with COPD are recommended. In fact, they’re a fundamental part of the treatment. In contrast, a sedentary lifestyle can aggravate the condition.

The aim of physical activity in COPD patients is to keep the chest muscles active. This allows them to receive more oxygen and, consequently, breathe less.

Some COPD patients believe that it’s best to rest, since exercise fatigues them easily. However, this is not true, as you will see below.

What is COPD?

COPD is an acronym for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. It’s characterized by a lack of free airflow in the lungs, which makes breathing difficult and leads to coughing, wheezing, and occasional mucus or sputum production.

Patients with COPD are at increased risk of developing heart problems, lung cancer, and other associated conditions. As the name implies, this condition is chronic and has no known cure.

This disease is also progressive. However, with good treatment, it’s possible to maintain quality of life and slow the progression of the condition. Physical and breathing exercises should be an essential part of life for COPD patients.

The symptoms of COPD

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease is a conglomerate of respiratory conditions that decrease airflow in the lungs. It’s composed of asthma, chronic bronchitis, and pulmonary emphysema, so the symptoms are very varied. However, the most relevant ones include:

  • Respiratory distress
  • Dry or phlegmy cough
  • Wheezing or abnormal breath sounds
  • Difficulty taking in air
  • Frequent respiratory infections

Exercises for people with COPD

Because of their condition, COPD patients cannot and should not perform any type of exercise. It’s best to consult a doctor before starting a plan. However, some of the most recommended include the following:

Exercises for People With COPD
A professional should evaluate which exercises are permissible for a COPD patient.

1. Stretching

Stretching provides flexibility, elasticity, and relaxation. They should be done slowly, gradually, and for no more than 10 minutes.

To perform arm stretches follow these steps:

  1. With your left hand, lift your right arm above the elbow.
  2. Gently pull your elbow toward the left shoulder.
  3. Keep your head facing the opposite (right) side.
  4. Repeat with the other arm.

To perform leg stretches apply the following guide:

  1. Stand up.
  2. Bend your left leg up and grab it with your left hand at the ankle.
  3. Keep the other arm leaning against the wall so as not to lose your balance.
  4. Repeat with the other leg.

2. Exercises for people with COPD: Walking

Walking is a great option for COPD patients. The most advisable is to do it every day, starting with a gentle 10-minute walk.

Each week you can add time until you reach 20 or 30 minutes a day. It can be practiced outdoors, indoors, and even at home.

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3. Climbing stairs

You should not miss the opportunity to climb stairs, as it is excellent exercise. The best way to do it is to hold on to the railing, exhale as you go up a step, and inhale as you go down. This is a very complete activity for COPD patients.

4. Push-ups and gentle weight lifting

When it comes to gentle weight-lifting, hand weights are recommended. A gallon of milk or an elastic band is also useful. Keep your arms on each side of your body and take a weight in each hand.

Push-ups are also a good activity. Do to them, bend your arms and bring them towards your chest. Breathe in at the beginning of the movement and breathe out at the end. Then, return to the original position and repeat 10 times.

5. Exercises for people with COPD: Knee extensions

According to the recommendations of the Mexican Association of Gerontology and Geriatrics, it’s advisable to extend the knees repeatedly in patients with COPD. There are several modalities for this.

First, the patient can sit in a chair with a straight back. Then, inhale and gently lift the right leg with the knee extended.

It should be fully extended and kept as straight as possible while exhaling. Then, inhale again and slowly lower the leg until the foot touches the floor. You can also add some weight to each leg. Repeat 10 to 15 times.

6. Calf raises

The calf raise is another one of the most recommended exercises for COPD patients. Just stand with a chair in front of you about 10 inches away.

Spread your legs apart, inhale and stand on your tiptoes while exhaling slowly. Hold for about 10 seconds and then lower your heels, while inhaling again. Ideally, do 2 sets of 10 repetitions.

7. Breathing with pursed lips

Breathing exercises are also essential for COPD patients. In this case, the following should be done:

  1. Relax the muscles of your shoulders and neck.
  2. Breathe in through the nose for 2 seconds. Your mouth should be closed.
  3. Pucker your lips and exhale for 4 seconds.
  4. Repeat about 5 times or until you feel discomfort.

8. Diaphragmatic breathing

For this exercise, it’s necessary to lie on your back with your knees bent towards your chest. One hand should be placed on the belly and the other on the chest.

Then, inhale deeply through your nose and count to 3 while trying to pass the air to the abdomen. Your abdomen should rise slightly, but the chest should remain in place. Then, tighten your abdominal muscles and exhale for a count of 6, with your lips more or less pursed.

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9. Strong coughing

This is another breathing exercise highly recommended for COPD patients. It helps to expel excess mucus effectively and without generating much fatigue.

The person should sit in a comfortable position and inhale air through the mouth with more intensity than normal. Then, activate your stomach muscles and expel the air in 3 strong exhalations, while making the sound “ha, ha, ha”.

10. Tai Chi

Tai Chi is an excellent practice; not only for COPD patients, but for anyone in general. It incorporates gentle activity for the heart and lungs, while helping to strengthen muscles. It also relieves stress and promotes relaxation.

11. Exercises for people with COPD: Leg lifts

Another physical exercise recommended for COPD patients is leg lifts. The effort made is minimal, however, so it simply helps to improve symptoms and general physical condition. To perform it properly, the following steps should be followed:

  1. Sit on a straight-backed chair with feet apart.
  2. Lift one leg with the knee bent, so that it goes towards your shoulder.
  3. Exhale as the leg is raised and hold for at least 10 seconds.
  4. Inhale as the leg descends.
  5. Repeat as many times as necessary.

12. Elbow twists

Elbow twists are ideal for people with COPD, since they help to expand the rib cage more easily. In addition, it’s possible to perform it standing or sitting, depending on the particular condition.

To perform it, all you have to do is place your hands on your shoulders (on the same side), so that your elbows are facing outwards. Then, make circular movements should be performed slowly, exhaling at the beginning of the circle and inhaling at the end.

13. Breathing with your elbows

A very effective breathing exercise is the method of breathing with the elbows. This is an exercise that, in addition to expanding the rib cage, improves the flow of air in the lungs of people with COPD.

All you have to do is sit on a chair, bend your elbows, and raise them to shoulder level. At the same time, the fingertips of both of your hands should be in contact with the front of your chest.

Once the previous position is adopted, both elbows should be pressed backward and your hands should be separated as you exhale. Then, press both elbows forward, bringing the fingertips closer together as you inhale. The idea is to repeat the exercise as many times as you consider necessary.

Other recommendations for COPD patients

Although exercises improve the physical condition of people with COPD, their performance must be combined with lifestyle changes to obtain better results. In this sense, there are multiple recommendations that these people should follow to improve their condition, among which the following stand out:

  • Do not smoke.
  • Sleep well.
  • Take any prescribed medications.
  • Maintain a healthy diet.
  • Lose weight.
  • Avoid triggers.
  • Do cardiopulmonary rehabilitation.
  • Maintain physical activity.

The benefits of exercising and modifying your lifestyle with COPD

COPD patients obtain great benefits from physical and respiratory exercises. In general terms, it improves the functioning of the heart and cardiovascular system, as well as blood pressure and symptoms of the disease.

Some of the other specific benefits are that it improves the way the body uses and manages oxygen, increases energy, helps maintain a healthy weight, and increases muscle strength and performance.

It’s best to do everything gradually while wearing comfortable clothing and closed-toe shoes. It’s also recommended to record the time or the number of times you can do the exercise until you feel a slight shortness of breath.

You should always rest a few minutes between one series and the other. It’s best to increase the intensity every week, not every day.

In addition, it’s a good idea to include dancing as part of your regular exercise. You can also do activities such as skating or rowing.

Exercises for People With COPD
Each patient should choose the exercise with which he/she feels comfortable and activities that they enjoy so they stick to them. 

Be consistent with the exercises for COPD

If, after a few days of doing exercises, your COPD symptoms increase, the best thing to do would be to take a day off. If you experience dizziness, shortness of breath, rapid heartbeat, or confusion, make sure to visit a medical center.

COPD patients should make physical and breathing exercises a routine practice. It’s not advisable to do them only once in a while, as this reduces effectiveness and may even generate certain risks.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

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  • Priego Jiménez, Susana, Torrijos Laín, Teresa, & Carrascosa Martínez, A. Guía de Rehabilitación respiratoria en pacientes con EPOC.
  • Montejo, Yeny Marlies Traba, and Wilson Alberto Mora León. “Los ejercicios físicos terapéuticos y su influencia en pacientes con enfermedad pulmonar obstructiva crónica. Orientaciones metodológicas.” Opuntia Brava 10.4 (2018): 116-123.
  • Salinas, Ruth, and Liliam Herrera. “Evolución clínica del estadio cero de epoc en pacientes tabaquistas con intervenciones médicas no farmacológicas.” Crea Ciencia Revista Científica 12.1 (2018): 3-18.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.