COPD Exercises to Help You Breathe Easy

Featured Article, Respiratory Health
on September 18, 2013

Starved for breath? You’re not alone. Every year, approximately 12 million U.S. adults are diagnosed with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD. A progressive lung disease that encompasses both emphysema and chronic bronchitis, COPD constricts airflow in the lungs, making it more difficult to breathe normally.

Thankfully, if you suffer with the condition, there are a number of COPD exercises you can employ to ease your symptoms and breathe more easily.

RELATED: Staying Active with COPD 

According to Janet Brindley, a psychotherapist and author of the book Breathe Well and Live Well with COPD, medication alone will not relieve the symptoms of COPD—individuals must also commit to doing regular breathing exercises. “There is evidence that breathing techniques do work—provided, of course, that you take the time to learn them properly and practice them,” Brindley says. “Scientific trials have shown that people who have learned to breathe properly feel better and become more active. This, in turn, can reduce symptoms such as breathlessness and chest tightness.”

Below, Bridley offers two COPD exercises for managing two primary symptoms: breathlessness and coughing attacks. With a little time—and practice—you will be on your path toward breathing more easily and comfortably.

Calm Breathing Technique

When you are short of breath, your body enters “fight or flight” mode, and your inclination is to begin to breathe rapidly and heavily. However, this response causes air to get trapped in your lungs, which only exacerbates feelings of breathlessness. “By forcing yourself to adopt calm, gentle nose-breathing, you give your lungs extra time to deflate and return to their normal size,” Brindley says. As you become more and more experienced with this technique, you ultimately may be able to halt an attack of breathlessness before it strikes. Try this technique the next time you feel short of breath.

1)   Keep calm and lean forward. When you feel short of breath, don’t panic. “Allow yourself to rest forward, supported by a table, or sit down. Lean forward but keep your back fairly straight,” Brindley says. “Move your knees apart so your stomach can drop down.”
2)   Change to nose breathing. “If you are breathing rapidly through your mouth, then try to change to nose-breathing,” Brindley suggests. “Your breathing might become a little noisier for awhile, but that’s OK.”
3)   Reduce the flow of air. Place your index finger just underneath your nose and feel the flow of the out breath on your finger. Gradually, breathe more slowly and reducing the amount of air you take in. “You might feel a strong urge to gulp down lots of air, but resist and move on to the next step,” Brindley says.
4)   Slow down. Keeping your finger under your nose, continue to breathe through your nose, but try to slow your breathing down by introducing a momentary pause after each breath. “This means after breathing out, don’t breathe in again for one second,” Brindley says. “Carry on doing this for at least six breaths.”
5)   Breathe less. “Finally, if you are still breathing heavily, slightly reduce the amount of air you are breathing in,” Brindley says. By now, you should be breathing easier and feeling more in control of your breath.

The Stop Cough Technique

This technique uses “the four Ss”—smother, swallow, stop and smooth—to suppress your coughing fits. “Keeping your hand over your mouth increases your awareness of the urge to cough, making it easier to break the cough habit,” Bridley says. “Finally, take your hand away from your mouth. If you still feel a tickle in your throat, repeat the technique from the beginning.” For this technique to work effectively, use it as soon as you feel the first urge to cough.

1)   Smother the cough. As soon as you cough—or sense that you’re about to cough—immediately cover your mouth with your hand.
2)   Swallow once.
3)   Stop breathing for two seconds.
4)   Smooth breathing for 30 seconds. Keeping your hand over your moth, breathe carefully and gently, keeping your breathing smooth.