Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD, has several unpleasant side effects. One of the most common is shortness of breath, and it can hit you at any time. If your doctor is recommending a pulmonary rehabilitation program to help manage your disease, you may also want to incorporate these six at-home breathing exercises for COPD that can vastly improve your condition and your daily life.
How Does Exercise Help COPD?
Exercise offers many health benefits to someone with COPD. When you get your body moving, you will improve your circulation and help your body better use the oxygen in your bloodstream which can lead to an improvement in your COPD symptoms.
Don’t worry; you won’t need to be in great shape to get started. Even gentle activities like yoga, tai chi, or meditation are enough to give you some relief. In fact, yoga breathing exercises are some of the most effective that you can incorporate into your daily routine to increase your lung capacity.
A better lung capacity means you’ll experience less shortness of breath, and over time develop more stamina to do the things you love without needing to take a break because you’re out of air.
Types of Exercise That Helps COPD
There are many different ways to get your body moving that are beneficial and incorporate breathing exercises for COPD.
Aerobic activities that raise your heart rate, like walking, cycling, chair aerobics or swimming are one popular method. Gentle stretching, like yoga, tai chi, or Pilates are an excellent way to keep your body limber and strengthen your diaphragm, an important muscle that contributes to your ability to take a deep breath.
Strength exercises like lifting light weights will not only keep your bones strong and help you maintain your bone density and range of motion as you age but will also increase the oxygen levels in your blood.
Finally, traditional breathing exercises to increase lung capacity that you even require you to break a sweat are an invaluable addition to your daily life.
We’ve all heard the expression “too much of a good thing,” and exercise can be one of those things if you have COPD. Be sure to check with your doctor before you start your exercise program to ensure they believe you are healthy enough to do so.
You’ll also want to avoid the following activities:
- Lifting heavy objects or doing vigorous chores like shoveling snow or gardening.
- Any activity where you need to bear down or hold your breath to complete the movement like push-ups, sit-ups, or isometric exercises where you hold one position for an extended amount of time.
- Exercising outdoors in extreme heat, cold, or humidity as it can make it more difficult to breathe.
- Becoming out of breath during activity. You should always be able to breathe when exercising.
It’s best to always exercise with a partner or friend. Not only does it make it more fun, but you'll have someone nearby in case you need to take a break or want assistance at any time.
6 Breathing Exercises for COPD
Here are six simple exercises you can do at home or during your daily exercise routine to improve your COPD symptoms.
Pursed Lip Breathing
To practice pursed lip breathing, inhale through your nose with your mouth closed and then exhale through your mouth with your lips pressed together in a pursed position. By exhaling this way, you only allow a bit of air to escape at one time which increases resistance in your airways and keeps them open while you exhale.
The diaphragm is the muscle located at the base of your lungs, and it controls how much you’re able to fill and empty your lungs. People with COPD may have a weak diaphragm, which can make it difficult to take a deep breath.
To strengthen the muscle and practice this breathing technique, you’ll want to start by laying down in a comfortable position. You can do this at home, or at the end of a yoga class when you’re laying on your mat. Place one hand on your chest and another on your lower abdomen.
Take a slow, deep breath in through your nose focusing on making your stomach expand beneath the hand on your lower abdomen. The hand on your chest should stay mostly still.
As you exhale, purse your lips and blow the air out feeling the hand on your lower abdomen sink back down towards your body. Again, the hand on your chest shouldn’t move much.
Deep breathing is a technique that prevents air from getting trapped in your lungs and helps you to circulate fresh air every time you take a breath. To do it, sit or stand tall with your elbows pulled slightly back from your body to fully open your chest.
Inhale through your nose and feel your lungs and diaphragm fully expand. Hold this breath for a count of “five Mississippi” and then slowly release the air through pursed lips. Be sure to exhale fully until you feel like your lungs are completely empty and you can’t breathe out any further.
Huff Cough Technique
One common side effect of COPD is mucous building up in your lungs. Coughing up the build-up can be exhausting, but the huff cough technique can make it easier.
To do it, sit comfortably and take a breath through your mouth that’s a bit deeper than if you were simply breathing normally. On the exhale, activate your stomach muscles and push out three sharp bursts of air while making the “ha ha ha” noise in the back of your throat. It’s helpful for some people to pretend they’re trying to fog up a mirror with their breath to get this technique just right.
Coordinated breathing is the best technique to use during exercise to help prevent you from feeling short of breath. To do it, inhale through your nose before beginning the movement, and exhale through pursed lips during the strenuous part of the exercise.
For example, if you’re going to do a biceps curl with a dumbbell, inhale through your nose with your arms straight, and then exhale with your lips pursed as you curl the weights up towards your body. Then, you can inhale as you lower the weights and prepare to repeat the movement.
Alternate Nostril Breathing
Common to Yoga classes, alternate nostril breathing has been scientifically proven to benefit those with COPD.
To do it, sit in a comfortable upright position and use the tip of the little finger and thumb on your right hand to line up with your nostrils. Your little finger should be on your left nostril and the pad of your thumb on your right.
Inhale, then exhale through your nose while gently pressing down with your thumb to close your right nostril. You should be breathing out only to the left. Inhale in this same position, and then on the exhale, change your fingers so that your left nostril is blocked and you’re breathing out through your right. Finally, inhale through your right nostril and repeat the pattern.
Repeat this pattern at least ten times daily for the best results.
How To Know When to Stop
Stop immediately if you experience chest pains, dizziness, nausea, faintness or pain and call your doctor.
Keep a close eye on your symptoms daily, and don’t ever exercise if they worsen. You may be experiencing COPD exacerbation, which is usually caused by an infection and can lead to a flare-up of your symptoms. If you catch the problem early, you can tread the condition at home with steroids, COPD inhalers, or antibiotics. Don’t ever push through your symptoms if they increase, as ignoring the signs could lead to hospitalization.
Other Ways to Find Comfort With COPD
Managing COPD is possible if you focus on breathing and making life as comfortable as possible. In addition to these daily exercises, try the following tips to make life more comfortable:
- Lower stress levels
- Avoid pollutants and irritants
- Communicate with your doctor and loved ones
- Stay active and social
- Quit smoking
- Ask for help when needed