How Breathing Exercises for COPD Can Help

Breathing Exercises for COPD

Tips to Strengthen Your Airways and Reinforce Your Lungs

Living with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is often uncomfortable, especially when you feel short of breath.

Without easy breathing, your energy suffers, your mobility drops, and your mind wanders to worst case scenarios. It makes good sense to do anything in your power to encourage better breathing.

Breathing exercises should take center stage in your COPD management plan, and the keys to improvement are persistence, form, and patience.

Why Good Breathing Is Crucial for Healing

Feeling breathless is a terrible sensation, and it tends to feed a terrible cycle: once you begin to gasp for air you get anxious, and anxiety constricts your chest muscles and speeds up heart rate. In turn, your breath becomes even shallower and your anxiety rises.

Breathlessness can also bring immobility, which prompts another damaging cycle: when walking becomes uncomfortable due to shortness of breath, you opt out of exercise, and the longer you go without exercise, the weaker your muscles get.

Weak muscles demand more oxygen to function, so any amount of activity will get more and more difficult, and your lungs, airways and cardiovascular system will suffer even more.

The Best Breathing Exercises for COPD

Breathing seems pretty simple: in, out, in, out, and repeat. But when you live with compromised lungs, that simple action can become a lot more difficult. In some circumstances, you’ll need to make a conscious effort to get the most out of every breath.


Although you can’t regain perfect lung function, you can retrain your airways to operate more efficiently. Strong airways will be able to push mucus out quickly, and stronger surrounding muscles will make breathing easier. These two breathing exercises will likely bring the greatest benefit:

Pursed-Lip Breathing

This is one of the most immediately rewarding exercises you can do. It will slow your breathing down, keep your airways open longer, and bump up your level of exertion. It’s also a very simple technique:

  1. Breathe in through the nose to the count of two
  2. Pucker your lips to make a small opening at the center of your mouth
  3. Breathe out through your pursed lips to the count of four or five — that’s at least twice as long as your inhale
  4. Repeat the process

This technique is particularly helpful for emphysema-prevalent COPD, which makes the airways collapse. The pressure created in the airways during the exhale helps to prevent them from collapsing and obstructing breathing.

Belly Breathing

Drawing breath deep into your abdomen can help you power through difficult breathing, but it does rely on abdominal strength and willpower. The technical term is “diaphragmatic breathing” since you’re pulling air down into your body rather than relying on the muscles in your neck, shoulders and back to force air in and out of your lungs.

The technical term is “diaphragmatic breathing” since you’re pulling air down into your body rather than relying on the muscles in your neck, shoulders and back to force air in and out of your lungs.

  1. Lie on your back, with one hand on your belly, taking some time to relax your shoulders
  2. Inhale through your nose to the count of two, inflating your belly and lower ribs more than your upper chest
  3. Slowly breathe out through pursed lips for twice as long as your inhale, gently pushing on your belly to release all the stale air
  4. Repeat the process

This technique requires a good deal of focus and muscle control in the upper abdomen to retrain your diaphragm to do more of the work. It will be helpful to recruit the help of a respiratory therapist or your doctor to make sure you have the proper form.

Belly breathing can also be performed lying down. Although not everyone with COPD will find this comfortable, practicing belly breathing while lying down can strengthen the diaphragm while also promoting relaxation – both advantageous if you have COPD.

If you’d like to practice belly breathing while lying down, pick up a one to two-pound bag of rice or a book and place it on your abdomen. Practice the breathing technique listed below for five to 15 minutes. The weight can be increased to five to 10 pounds.

Next Page: Breathe better with more breathing exercises for COPD, including coordinated breathing, the huff cough technique, and more. 

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