Breathing Exercises for COPD

When are breathing exercises helpful?

Breathing exercises help keep your chest muscles active. They can help you clear your lungs and breathe with less effort. They may help if you have chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Breathing exercises can also improve your ability to be physically active.

Breathing exercises also can reduce symptoms caused by anxiety and stress. When you feel anxious or stressed, you are likely to take shallow, fast breaths. This can result in dizziness, blurry vision, a feeling of pins and needles in your skin, and chest pain. Slow, deep breathing can help to relieve such symptoms quickly.

You may be asked to do breathing exercises before and after some types of surgery. The exercises help prevent pneumonia when you are not able to get up and move around easily.

How are breathing exercises done?

A nurse or therapist can teach you the right way to do the breathing exercises. Some hospitals have classes to teach these exercises. Once you learn them, you can do the exercises at home. Practicing in front of a mirror is useful. You should try to do each exercise several times a day as recommended by your healthcare provider.

What types of breathing exercises are used?

Two types of exercises are pursed-lip breathing and belly breathing. These breathing methods prevent or reduce trapped air in your lungs and allow you to inhale more fresh air. Another exercise called the huff cough technique can help you learn to cough up mucus in a way that doesn’t tire you too much. Ask your healthcare provider which exercises will work best for you.

Pursed-lip breathing (when you are short of breath)

Follow these steps for pursed-lip breathing:

  1. Get in a comfortable position. Try to relax your neck and shoulder muscles.
  2. Breathe in slowly through your nose for 2 or 3 counts. Count 1, 2, 3.
  3. Purse your lips together like you were going to whistle.
  4. Breathe out gently through your pursed lips. Try to breathe out twice as long as you breathed in (4 to 6 counts). Try to keep breathing out until all the air is gone.

Pursed breathing allows you to relax and slow down your breathing. When you breathe fast, there isn’t enough time to breathe out fully, so trapped air takes up more and more space in your lungs. With pursed lip breathing, you can get rid of air that is trapped in your lungs. This makes room for more fresh air with oxygen to come into your lungs. Your lungs will work better and you can use less energy to breathe. You will have less shortness of breath and it will be easier to be physically active.

Keep doing pursed-lip breathing until you are not short of breath.

Belly breathing

This technique is best used when you’re feeling rested and relaxed. To practice belly breathing, follow these steps:

  1. Sit or lie down and relax your shoulders.
  2. Put one hand on your chest and the other on your belly.
  3. Breathe in through your nose for about 2 seconds. Feel your belly moving out. This means your belly muscles are relaxing, and the muscle that separates your chest from your belly (your diaphragm) is moving down.
  4. As you breathe out slowly, gently press on your belly as it moves in.

Huff cough

Coughing is a natural way to clear mucus out of the lungs. With COPD (especially chronic bronchitis), your lungs make a lot of mucus. When mucus builds up in your lungs, it clogs the airways and makes it harder to breathe. The huff cough helps you cough more effectively without tiring yourself too much. Sit comfortably in a chair and follow these steps:

  1. Take a breath that is a little deeper than normal.
  2. Use your stomach muscles to blow the air out in 3 breaths, making a “ha, ha, ha” sound. It is like “huffing” onto a mirror or window to steam it up.

Huff coughs are not as forceful as regular coughs but they can work better and be less tiring.

What are the benefits of breathing exercises if I have COPD?

Many people with COPD get less exercise. You may think that it is better to rest than to tire yourself out. But if you don’t exercise, your muscles weaken and you become less able to do the things you want to do.

When you exercise your muscles regularly, they are able to do more work with less oxygen. Adding even small amounts of exercise to your daily or weekly routine can be very helpful and fun.

Ask your healthcare provider or physical therapist how you can get started on an exercise program.

Developed by RelayHealth.
Adult Advisor 2015.1 published by RelayHealth.
Last modified: 2015-01-02
Last reviewed: 2015-01-02
This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a healthcare professional.
Copyright ©1986-2015 McKesson Corporation and/or one of its subsidiaries. All rights reserved.

Patient Portal

Our Patient Portal provides safe and secure online access to better communicate with your Tufts Medical Center Community Care doctor. This easy-to-use web tool is a convenient way to book appointments, request referrals, renew prescriptions, view medical records/test results and communicate with your healthcare provider from the privacy of your own computer.


Your privacy is important to us. Learn more about ourwebsite privacy policy. X