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5 COPD Breathing Exercises to Strengthen Your Lungs

COPD Basics

July 27, 2023

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Photography by Mavocado/Getty Images

Photography by Mavocado/Getty Images

by Stephanie Orford

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Medically Reviewed by:

Thomas Johnson, PA-C

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•••••

by Stephanie Orford

•••••

Medically Reviewed by:

Thomas Johnson, PA-C

•••••

•••••

Breathing exercises can seriously help if you have COPD. Here are 5 research-backed options and how to do them at home.

Breathing exercises are a powerful tool you can use at home to improve your breathing with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

A 2020 meta-analysis of 13 studies with a total of 998 participants found that breathing exercises reduced breathlessness while boosting lung function, exercise capacity, respiratory muscle strength, and health-related quality of life in people with COPD.

A 2021 research review found that breathing exercises improved breathing muscle function and 6-minute walk test results.

You can practice these exercises during short periods of time throughout your day — like during your commute (when it’s safe to do so), while you’re watching TV, during a midday break, or right before bed.

Here are 5 breathing exercises that experts often recommend for people with COPD.

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Pursed lip breathing

Many people use this technique to control and slow their breathing. It requires you to exhale longer than normal, since you breathe out through pursed lips.

It decreases the work of breathing and helps prevent airway collapse and air trapping that can happen in people living with COPD.

To practice pursed lip breathing:

  1. With your mouth closed, slowly breathe in your typical amount of air (not too much) through your nose.
  2. Purse your lips: Form them as if you were whistling or blowing a kiss and breathe out slowly through your mouth.
  3. Exhale for about twice as long as you inhaled.
  4. Repeat.

For best results, don’t try to force air out fast or take a very deep breath.

Overall, pursed lip breathing can improve your blood oxygenation, relieve breathlessness, and help you relax and regain control of your breathing.

Try practicing it 3–4 times each day for 5–10 minutes at a time, and slowly increase the time you spend doing it.

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Coordinated breathing

You can practice coordinated breathing when you’re starting an exercise or activity that requires physical effort.

It helps prevent you from holding your breath unconsciously as you’re concentrating on an activity. It keeps you breathing steadily so your muscles can get the oxygen they need.

Here’s how:

  1. Before starting the activity, do a few moments of pursed lip breathing.
  2. The moment you start on the activity, inhale through your nose.
  3. During the most strenuous part of the activity, exhale through pursed lips.
  4. If you find you’re becoming short of breath, stop the activity and practice pursed lip breathing. Then start again.

This technique can help during repetitive activities. For example, if you’re lifting groceries from the floor to the counter, you could inhale as you’re bending down to pick up the groceries and exhale as you’re lifting them up to the counter.

Deep breathing

This technique can help you release trapped air and breathe in more fresh air when you’re feeling short of breath.

Here’s how to do it for COPD, according to the University of Maryland Baltimore Washington Medical Center:

  1. Sit or stand comfortably, positioning your arms by your sides with your elbows slightly behind you to help open up your chest.
  2. Breathe in and hold your breath for as long as possible.
  3. Exhale and cough strongly at the same time.
  4. Repeat up to 10 times per hour.
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Huff cough

The huff cough is less of a cough and more of a forceful breath. It’s a gentle way of getting mucus out of your lungs if it’s building up and preventing you from breathing properly.

To do the huff cough:

  1. Sit in a comfortable position.
  2. Inhale a little more deeply than usual.
  3. Using your ab muscles, breathe out in three breaths, saying “ha, ha, ha.” These three forced expirations should feel like using your breath to steam up a glass.

Diaphragmatic breathing

This type of breathing can help with shortness of breath. It helps slow down your breathing and gets more oxygen into your lungs.

To practice diaphragmatic breathing:

  1. Sit or lie down in a comfortable position with a straight back. Place your hands on your belly.
  2. Breathe in slowly and deeply through your nose, expanding your belly as the air comes in. You should feel your belly rise as it expands like a balloon.
  3. Purse your lips as though you were blowing a kiss and exhale, blowing the air out through your mouth.
  4. Repeat for 5–10 minutes. Concentrate on breathing in through your nose and out through your mouth slowly.
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Pulmonary rehabilitation

Healthcare professionals who specialize in treating COPD recommend pulmonary rehabilitation programs for people with any stage of the disease. It can really help if shortness of breath affects your ability to accomplish daily tasks even though you’re taking medication.

According to the American Lung Association, pulmonary rehabilitation can help make symptoms less severe while boosting lung function and quality of life.

A pulmonary rehabilitation program will typically include:

  • group classes about how COPD affects your lungs
  • social support from other people with COPD
  • breathing exercises
  • physical exercises to increase your physical fitness

Speak with the doctor treating your COPD to find out whether pulmonary rehabilitation is right for you and, if so, what program they recommend for your needs.

If you live in the United States, you can also find pulmonary rehabilitation programs in your area using this directory.

Takeaway

If you have COPD, doing breathing exercises every day can really help improve your breathing and may boost your quality of life, too. They can help no matter your disease stage.

People often use breathing exercises as part of pulmonary rehabilitation.

If you’re interested in trying out breathing exercises or pulmonary rehabilitation, speak with the doctor who treats your COPD to get personalized recommendations.

Medically reviewed on July 27, 2023

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