29 Apr 24

Exercises to improve breathing in COPD

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) can significantly impact breathing, but there are ways to improve respiratory function and quality of life for individuals suffering from the condition. In this article, we will explain how to perform a series of simple respiratory exercises to improve breathing in COPD.

What is COPD

The acronym COPD stands for Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease and refers to a group of diseases where airflow blockage leads to breathing-related problems. Emphysema and chronic bronchitis are examples of COPD.

Common symptoms of COPD are frequent coughing, wheezing, production of mucus or sputum, shortness of breath, and difficulty taking deep breaths.

Poor air quality at home or in the workplace – e.g., presence of air pollutants or smoke – respiratory infections, and genetic factors are some of the causes for COPD.

Why respiratory exercises can help

Regular practice of respiratory techniques can help move air into and out of a patient’s lungs, assuring an adequate amount of oxygen to working muscles and preventing breathing difficulties. Breathing exercises are also commonly used to calm down stress and anxiety, which may lead to tightness and shortness of breath if left unchecked.

In order for respiratory exercises to improve breathing in COPD, it is important to be consistent and dedicate around 10 minutes every day to the practice of the following techniques.

Respiratory exercises to improve breathing in COPD

The following exercises should be performed while laying down or sitting in a comfortable position, with loosened clothing, and keeping the neck and shoulder muscles as relaxed as possible.

Their purpose is to keep the airways open, as breathing issues in COPD are due to obstructions that prevent regular airflow. As a side benefit, they also slow down breathing, helping patients to calm down.

Pursed Lip Breathing

Pursed lip breathing is by far the easiest and most common exercise to perform in order to improve lung function. It can be performed in three simple steps:

  1. Sit comfortably and relax.
  2. Inhale slowly through your nose with your mouth closed, while mentally counting up to three or four. Don’t go for a large deep breath, instead try to take in a normal amount of air.
  3. Tighten your lips in a whistling or kissing position, then slowly exhale through your mouth. Keep counting: exhaling should last about twice as long as inhaling.
  4. Diaphragmatic Breathing

Diaphragmatic breathing is a technique used in several contexts – singers, actors or teachers are usually introduced to it in the beginning phase of their careers or studies – due to its capability of optimizing lung function through the conscious use of the diaphragm, the muscle responsible for pulling the air into the lower part of the lungs. Since the diaphragm is located beneath the lungs and above your digestive system, this technique is sometimes referred to as belly breathing.

Here is what to do:

  1. Sit or lie in a comfortable position and relax your shoulders, then place a hand on your chest and the other one on your belly.
  2. Take a slow deep breath through your nose. With the help of your hands, focus on the airflow moving from your throat and down to your abdomen. Your belly should expand like an inflating balloon, while your chest should move very little and your shoulders should stay still.
  3. Relax your abdomen and breathe out slowly through your mouth. Press your hands on your belly to help push the air out if needed.

Coordinated Breathing

This technique can help you focus on your breath while exercising, assuring adequate oxygenation to your working muscles and preventing you from holding your breath during your workout.

What you will do is inhale through your nose before starting the physical effort, then exhale through pursed lips during the exerting part of the activity. If you find it difficult to coordinate your breathing with the exercise, maybe because it’s particularly straining, try counting yourself so that you become more focused on coordinating your breath with the physical activity.

Other exercises that help respiratory function

Alongside respiratory exercises to improve breathing in COPD, postural exercises may also help optimize breathing by allowing the chest to expand more fully.

The most effective position is sitting or standing with shoulders back and spine straight, avoiding slouching or hunching forward, which may restrict lung expansion. A good suggestion is to consult your healthcare professional for personalized recommendations and guidance based on your individual needs and limitations.

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