If you have COPD, exercise is one of the best tools to help you breathe easier, improve your endurance and be able to do more of the things you love. But knowing where to start can be a little daunting.
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It's understandable to worry about finding the right level of intensity, because just about any form of exercise will cause you to breathe a little heavier than normal. The key is paying attention to how you feel, and sticking with a pace you're comfortable with.
On a scale of 1 to 10, where 1 feels like you're breathing like normal and 10 feels completely out of breath, try to stick to an intensity that feels like a 3 or 4, says Carol Michaels, an ACE- and ACSM-certified personal trainer and founder of Recovery Fitness.
Also, you should get the green light from your doctor before starting any kind of workout program. They can help you figure out the best types of exercise for you and determine whether you'd benefit from working with a respiratory therapist.
Aim to do a mix of cardio, strengthening and stretching workouts to help condition your lungs and increase their capacity, Michaels says. She suggests low-impact exercises like walking, swimming and stationary bicycling, and avoiding heavy weightlifting as well as pushing moves like push-ups or sit-ups.
Let’s Get Started: Your 30-Minute Workout
This half-hour workout, designed by Michaels, combines walking with upper-body strengthening and stretching exercises, all of which can help with COPD symptoms. And it's all in a format that's fully customizable to your breathing and endurance level. Aim to do it three to four times a week (or work up to that number).
As you exercise, focus on taking slow, deep belly breaths and exhaling through pursed lips — this will help you take in more oxygen. And remember to take a break anytime you need it: Stop exercising, sit in a chair that supports your shoulders and rest until you can breathe comfortably again.
0:00 to 5:00: Warm up by walking on a flat surface at an easy pace. (If you're on a treadmill, the incline should be 0.) You should be able to breathe normally.
Pick Up the Pace
5:00 to 20:00: Walk at a slightly faster pace, staying on a relatively flat surface. Aim to walk at a speed where you're starting to sweat but can still carry on a conversation.
20:00 to 25:00: Do 5 to 10 reps of three or four of the following upper-body exercises, using light weights that leave your muscles feeling like they've been worked by the last rep, but not exhausted. Aim to pick a different combination of three or four exercises each time you work out.
- Stand with a dumbbell in each hand with arms extended down toward the floor and palms facing forward.
- Exhale, bending your elbows and curling the weights up toward your shoulders.
- Inhale, slowly straightening your arms and returning to your starting position.
Your shoulders should stay stacked over your hips as you curl. If you have to lean back to lift the weight, try using a lighter dumbbell.
Lateral Arm Raises
- Stand with a dumbbell in each hand, palms facing in toward your sides.
- Inhale to start, then exhale and raise your right arm out to the side, stopping when your elbow reaches shoulder height. (Keep your arm straight but don't lock the elbow. And keep your palm facing down during the raise.)
- Inhale as you slowly lower your hand back to your side.
Overheard Triceps Extension
- Stand with a dumbbell in each hand with arms extended up toward the ceiling and palms facing each other.
- Inhale, bending your elbows and lowering the weights down behind your head. Make sure to keep your biceps next to your ears rather than letting them bow out.
- Exhale, unfolding and extending your arms back up to your starting position.
- Stand with a dumbbell in each hand, arms extended down toward the floor, palms facing back.
- Inhale to start, then exhale and raise your right arm in front of your body, stopping when your elbow reaches shoulder height. (Keep your arm straight but but don't lock the elbow. And keep your palm facing down during the raise.)
- Inhale, slowly lowering your arm back to the starting position.
- Stand with a dumbbell in each hand with elbows bent, hands at shoulder-level, and palms facing forward.
- Exhale, pressing the weights up toward the ceiling, extending your arms overhead.
- Inhale, slowly lowering your arms and returning to your starting position.
- Stand with a dumbbell in each hand with arms extended down toward the floor and palms facing in toward your sides.
- Inhale to start, then exhale as you raise your arms in front of your body to form a "Y," stopping when your arms are parallel to the floor. Keep your arms straight but don't lock the elbows.
- Inhale, slowly lowering your arms back to the starting position.
- Place your left knee and left arm on a chair with your back parallel to the floor, bending forward from the hips. Hold a dumbbell in your right hand and extend your right arm down toward the floor.
- Exhale, bending your elbow and lifting the weight toward your waist.
- Inhale, lowering the weight back toward the floor.
- Repeat for 5 to 10 reps, then switch arms.
Cool Down and Stretch
25:00 to 30:00: Cool down with a short series of simple stretches:
- Inhale, reaching both arms high overhead and crossing your wrists at the top.
- Exhale, slowly pressing your arms back, around and down, creating large half circles as your arms lower to your sides.
- Repeat the stretch, trying to make your circles as large as possible to open your chest and shoulders.
- Repeat several times.
Backward Shoulder Rolls
- Raise your shoulders up toward your ears, while inhaling slowly for 5 seconds.
- Slowly roll your shoulders backward, pressing them all the way back down, while exhaling slowly for 5 seconds.
- Do a few more rolls, increasing the size of the circle each time.
- Stand with your back to the wall and your elbows bent to form a "W" with palms facing forward.
- Keeping your shoulders and arms flat against the wall, slowly slide your arms up the wall to form a "V".
- Inhale for 5 seconds, sliding your arms up the wall, and exhale for 5 seconds, sliding them back down to the "W" position.
- Repeat several times.
Making it through the full workout might seem challenging at first. But keep at it, taking care to listen to your body to ensure you stay comfortable. Over time, you'll find you can push yourself a little further and breathe a little easier during exercise — two important signs that your lungs are reaping big benefits.
Is this an emergency? If you are experiencing serious medical symptoms, please see the National Library of Medicine’s list of signs you need emergency medical attention or call 911.