Exercise for Patients with Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD)

Man resting from running

Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) is progressive, debilitating, and often poses a major obstacle to regular exercise. In some cases, it precludes it entirely. COPD encompasses two general conditions, emphysema, and chronic bronchitis, that cause breathing difficulties, phlegm-producing cough, shortness of breath, and other unpleasant symptoms. The cause? Typically, it’s what you might guess: cigarette smoking (although not always). And COPD is the third leading cause of death in the United States, affecting approximately 16 million people.

Chances are, one of the 16 million COPD sufferers has found their way into a physical therapy clinic in your community—maybe even your own.

The primary challenge for patients with COPD is that this disease makes even the most basic activities, such as standing and sitting, walking, and showering, difficult. And without exercise and personal care, the condition only worsens more rapidly. This, of course, makes any kind of sustained physical therapy regimen a complicated matter. However, there are options for physical therapists with patients who suffer from this debilitating disease.

Tips, Guidelines, and Recommended Exercises

Let this first rule be the most important: make sure that COPD patients have been cleared to exercise by a physician. During workout sessions, it is important to monitor heart rate and rate of perceived exertion (RPE) throughout, and make a note of any spikes or irregularities. It can also be helpful to keep supplementary oxygen on hand, if possible. Finally, it’s best to encourage patients to practice pursed-lip breathing (breathe slowly, inhale through the nose with mouth closed, then exhale through pursed lips) throughout the exercise session.

Regarding recommended practices, lower impact exercises are ideal, especially when just starting out. This can include light stretching and low-impact cardiovascular and aerobic exercise. The AlterG Anti-Gravity Treadmill is especially useful for this kind of exercise, as it allows therapists to reduce body weight load and, thus, excess stress on the body. COPD sufferers also benefit from strengthening exercises, such as repeated muscle contractions (making squeezed fists, for example), and upper body exercises, which help strengthen muscles that aid in respiration. As with any patient, it’s always good to offer practical nutritional advice—poor nutrition and hydration can be quiet saboteurs on the road to better conditioning for COPD sufferers.

The Bottom Line

In truth, COPD cannot be cured or reversed. But developing a regular exercise routine with these patients can help slow the progress of this disease, soften symptoms, and improve the overall quality of life. Studies have shown exercise can slow airway obstruction, improve circulation, and lower blood pressure. What can better pay off there be?

Following the guidelines and exercises mentioned above is a solid place to start.

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