People living with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) often have trouble breathing every day. Many people describe the shortness of breath associated with COPD as air hunger.
You avoid the activities that make you feel breathless when you feel breathless. As you avoid activities, you do less, your muscles weaken, and breathlessness often worsens.
As shortness of breath worsens, many people feel depressed and don’t do their favorite activities.
It is a hard cycle to break, but with these best breathing exercises for COPD, you can take the first step to breathe easier.
How Are Breathing Exercises for COPD Helpful?
It’s normal for people to feel tense when it’s hard to breathe. Learning and practicing certain breathing exercises can be helpful for people trying to manage their symptoms.
Breathing exercises for COPD may help you stay more relaxed when you feel sudden COPD symptoms.
What are the Best Breathing Exercises for COPD?
While there are many different types of breathing exercises, below are a few that may be useful for people with COPD and other chronic lung diseases.
Keep in mind, it’s important to talk with your doctor about breathing exercises before trying them or adding them to your routine.
Pursed Lips Breathing
The pursed lips breathing exercise can be used to address shortness of breath by reducing how hard someone must work on breathing.
It promotes relaxation. In addition, pursed lips breathing helps people learn how to control their breathing and can aid in the release of air trapped within the lungs. Pursed lips breathing can be especially useful during strenuous activities.
Here’s how to do the pursed lips breathing exercise for COPD:
- Relax your neck and shoulders.
- Breathe in slowly through your nostrils while you count to two (keeping your mouth closed).
- Pucker your lips as if you’re giving a kiss.
- Breathe out slowly and steadily through your mouth while you count to four.
You don’t have to take a deep breath to do pursed lips breathing. The key is to focus on breathing in and out slowly while you count. Pursed lips breathing can be practiced four to five times daily.
Episodes of shortness of breath can cause anxiety and make you hold your breath. The coordinated breathing exercise helps to prevent you from holding your breath.
Coordinated breathing can help during exercise or when you feel anxious. Here’s how to practice coordinated breathing:
- Inhale through your nose. (If you’re exercising, inhale through your nose before starting an exercise).
- Purse your lips.
- Exhale through pursed lips during the most challenging part of the exercise.
- Repeat as needed.
When air becomes trapped in the lungs, you may feel increased shortness of breath. While it may seem strange, deep breathing exercises for COPD can help prevent air from getting trapped in your lungs.
Deep breathing helps you breathe in more fresh air. Here are the steps to do deep breathing:
- With your elbows back slightly, sit or stand in a comfortable position.
- Take a deep breath in.
- Hold your breath as you count to five.
- Exhale slowly until you feel that you have released as much air as possible.
Deep breathing can be performed along with other breathing exercises for COPD and up to three to four times a day.
Belly Breathing or Diaphragmatic Breathing
The diaphragm is one of the most important of the muscles used for normal breathing. Often, people with COPD use accessory muscles in their neck, shoulders and back to breathe more than they use their diaphragm.
Belly breathing or diaphragmatic breathing helps people with COPD retrain the diaphragm to work better, so they can breathe more efficiently.
Here’s how to perform belly breathing:
- Lie on your back with your knees bent or resting on a pillow.
- Place one hand on your upper chest and the other hand on your belly.
- Inhale slowly through your nose.
- As you inhale, focus on feeling the hand on your belly rise and the hand on your chest remaining as still as possible.
- Exhale slowly through your mouth like you would in pursed lips breathing.
- As you exhale, focus on feeling the hand on your belly go down first.
- Repeat as you are able.
Ask your doctor or respiratory therapist to show you how to best perform this exercise and how often you should practice it.
Huff Cough Technique
Mucus build-up is a common problem for people with COPD. Coughing is the body’s normal response to clearing the airways. However, the constant coughing associated with COPD often makes people very tired.
The huff-cough technique can help people cough up mucus more effectively without making them feel so tired.
Here’s what you do:
- Sit in a comfortable position.
- Inhale a little deeper than you would for a normal breath.
- Use your stomach muscles to blow out the air in three even breaths while you make the sounds, “ha, ha, ha,” as if you are blowing onto a mirror to make it steam.
Stop. Reset. Continue.
If you are doing physical activity or exercising and start to feel short of breath, it’s important to take a few minutes to regroup. Shortness of breath can cause anxiety. The first step is to stay calm.
The key is to stop, reset, continue. Next, give these simple steps a try:
- Stop the activity.
- Sit down.
- Relax your shoulders.
- Breathe in slowly through your nostrils for two seconds while keeping your mouth closed.
- Exhale slowly through your mouth for a count of four seconds.
- Repeat these steps until your breathing goes back to normal.
Once you feel better, you may go back to your activities. However, if you don’t feel better, have increased shortness of breath or have chest pain, call 911.
COPD Breathing Exercises and Your Continued Health
For many people with COPD, practicing these COPD breathing exercises under the care and supervision of their doctor helps them feel better.
These COPD breathing exercises give people a way to manage their lung health so that they can stay as active and mobile as possible. Some people also use various standing and sitting positions to reduce shortness of breath.
Remember to use your COPD medications exactly as prescribed by your doctor. Report any changes in your lung health or overall health to your physician immediately.
You and your doctor will continue to work together to develop the best COPD treatment plan. Treatment plans may include medications, exercise, breathing exercises, oxygen therapy, cellular therapy, pulmonary rehab and more.
Consult with your doctor to see which treatment plan works for you.
Christine Kingsley, APRN is the Health and Wellness Director at the Lung Institute where she focuses on providing helpful online resources for people looking for information on various lung diseases, breathing exercises, and healthy lifestyle choices. She advocates for holistic care that involves working with your doctor to explore all options including traditional and alternative care while focusing on diet and exercise as proactive measures.