How Breathing Exercises Can Help With COPD, and 4 to Try

Breathing exercises can help increase your lung function if you have COPD.
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If you're living with COPD, your doctor may recommend some strategies for managing your symptoms and improving your quality of life. Because COPD (that's chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) can cause shortness of breath, one of those strategies is breathing exercises.

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Why Breathing Exercises Help With COPD

People with COPD struggle with breathing because the condition causes air to get trapped in the lungs and interferes with the exchange of gas, says Osita Onugha, MD, thoracic surgeon and assistant professor of thoracic surgical oncology at John Wayne Cancer Institute at Providence Saint John's Health Center in Santa Monica, California.

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"Air trapped in the lungs doesn't help you to breathe," Dr. Onugha tells LIVESTRONG.com. It's actually the exchange of gases that happens in the lungs that give our bodies the oxygen we need, he explains. With COPD, the trapped air causes carbon dioxide to build up, which prevents fresh oxygen from getting in and leaves you feeling short of breath and constantly hungry for air.

Unfortunately, this creates a vicious cycle: People with COPD feel short of breath because they aren't getting the oxygen they need, which causes them to breathe more shallowly and rapidly (think: how you breathe when you're exerting yourself), which then actually makes their shortness of breath even worse.

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Breathing exercises help with COPD because they help you both inhale and exhale fully, Dr. Onugha says. Breathing exercises that fully empty the lungs will help get rid of trapped air and lead to fewer shortness-of-breath episodes.

Plus, breathing techniques are a form of lung exercises. These exercises can help people with COPD learn how to use their "breathing muscles" rather than other muscles in the body that utilize more energy to assist with breathing, like the arms, Rebecca Lynn, BS, RRT, respiratory care coordinator at UCHealth University of Colorado Hospital, tells LIVESTRONG.com.

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In other words, with the right practice, these exercises can help retrain how you breathe.

Breathing Exercises for COPD

While many deep breathing exercises can be done on your own at home, the first step anyone with COPD should take is to visit a doctor who can evaluate the severity of the condition and recommend a treatment plan. Many treatment plans for people with COPD will include pulmonary rehab, which is a supervised program that includes education and exercises to improve your lung function.

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Under the guidance of a respiratory therapist, you will learn how to properly perform the right breathing exercises for you. Not everyone will have the same treatment plan for COPD; some people may also need additional help, such as oxygen or medication, so it's important to work with your doctor and respiratory therapist before adding any new exercise.

Some of the breathing exercises that are most helpful for COPD include:

1. Pursed Lip Breathing

Dr. Onugha recommends pursed lip breathing as the number one exercise for anyone with COPD. To perform this exercise:

  1. Breathe in through your nose for a count of three.
  2. Breathe out through pursed lips (as if you are blowing out a candle) for a count of three.

Lynn suggests using this breathing exercise especially when you are exerting yourself. For example, if you're climbing up a flight of stairs, you can take a breath in before you climb, then begin breathing out with pursed lips as you climb a few steps, repeating with two to three steps at a time.

2. Belly Breathing

Belly breathing, also known as diaphragmatic breathing, can help you really empty out your lungs by focusing on breathing with your entire chest and stomach. Performing belly breathing allows your diaphragm to lower, which then allows your lungs to fill.

Here's how to do it:

  1. Place your hand on your stomach and breathe in through your nose. Use your hand on your stomach so you can feel your stomach going out as you breathe in. (Your shoulders, neck and chest should be as relaxed as possible).
  2. Exhale all of the air out through pursed lips, feeling your stomach lower as you breathe out.

Pro tip: Lynn recommends you practice diaphragmatic breathing while you are at rest, such as sitting in a chair or lying down, until it becomes a habit all of the time.

3. Deep Breathing

Deep breathing is exactly what it sounds like, and the steps are simple:

  1. Take a deep breath, then hold it for a few moments.
  2. When you're ready, exhale slowly through your nose.

Like belly breathing, you can practice deep breathing when you're at rest.

4. Mindful Purposeful Breathing

Felice Heffenger, pulmonary rehabilitation respiratory therapist at UCHealth, recommends mindful breathing as a way to naturally pace activities and build up endurance. You can do this exercise with any activity and at any time of day.

  1. Inhale for a count of one, as you prepare to perform an activity or exercise.
  2. Exhale for a count of two as you perform the part of the activity or exercise where you're exerting yourself the most.

The idea is simply to focus on your breath, and the key, says Heffenger, is that you don't want to rush it. "The stress alone may cause shortness of breath," she notes.

Lynn says no matter which breathing exercise you choose, it's a good idea to begin practicing them at home, so you can work up to using them with all of your daily activities, such as walking, cleaning or bathing. To start, aim to do these exercises for about 10 to 15 minutes each day, then work up from there, Heffenger recommends.

While that may seem like a lot, Heffenger says she's seen people with even very severe COPD see an improvement in their symptoms through breathing exercises. "It requires a huge commitment, but quality of life is much improved, so the payoff is big," she says. So, keep on breathing on.

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