Can COPD Be Reversed With Exercise?

If you have chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder (COPD), exercise helps your lungs get stronger and work better, according to the American Lung Association (ALA).

 But can it reverse the effects of COPD? Not exactly, says Uddalak Majumdar, MD, a pulmonary specialist at Cleveland Clinic in Ohio. “While the lung damage from COPD cannot exactly be reversed, exercise can definitely help the body cope better.”

In fact, research shows that exercise can help manage your symptoms and flares.

 It also strengthens the muscles used for breathing, improves lung function and capacity, and has positive effects on mental health.

Exercise Improves Lung Function and Capacity

COPD can affect how well your lungs work and how much air they can hold.

Consistent exercise can decrease your resting heart rate and blood pressure, helping your body use oxygen better. Exercise can also help you lose weight, which will help your lungs.

Exercise Strengthens Breathing Muscles

You don’t just use your lungs to breathe: You use several sets of muscles, including your diaphragm, the muscles between your ribs, stomach muscles, and more in your face, mouth, throat, and upper chest.

And, just like any other muscle, they can get weak. “However, exercise … strengthens the muscles and improves muscle endurance, and therefore patients can do more, even when lung function is limited,” says Maor Sauler, MD, a Yale Medicine pulmonary care specialist practicing in New Haven, Connecticut. In fact, a meta-analysis concluded that exercise is the best available method to strengthen breathing muscles in people with COPD.

Exercise Reduces COPD Symptoms, Boosting Mood and Well-Being

COPD comes with a wide range of symptoms that affect the whole body and even your mental health.

 But when you incorporate exercise into your treatment protocol, the ALA reports you may notice improvement in a number of symptoms, including:

Types of Exercises for COPD

Any kind of exercise can boost your health, but when you have COPD, aerobic exercises can work especially well.

 For people with mild COPD, good options include light cardiovascular exercises like walking or swimming, whereas for moderate COPD, you may want to consider pulmonary rehabilitation under the direction of your healthcare provider.

In general, for people with COPD, the ALA recommends exercising 20 to 30 minutes a day, three to four days a week.

 If you’re in the middle of a COPD flare, though, talk to your provider about exercise: You may need to slow it down until you feel better.

Pulmonary Rehabilitation

“If your COPD is moderate or severe, a specialized exercise program called pulmonary rehabilitation can result in symptom improvement,” says Majumdar. In pulmonary rehab, you exercise under supervision and trained professionals conduct breathing tests (like the six-minute walk test) to check your COPD progression.

“It has been shown that … pulmonary rehabilitation can help with shortness of breath, increase exercise capacity, reduce anxiety, and reduce flare-ups,” says Majumdar, who encourages all his patients with moderate-to-severe COPD to participate in this exercise program.

Aerobic Exercise

Aerobic exercise means any physical activity that raises your heart rate.

 This type of exercise strengthens your heart and lungs, helping your body better use oxygen you inhale.

 Some example of aerobic exercise include:

  • Walking
  • Jogging
  • Jumping rope
  • Cycling
  • Cross-country skiing
  • Skating
  • Rowing
  • Water aerobics (low-impact)

If you’re unsure where to start, you can ask your provider for their recommendations.


When someone has COPD, the effort they use to breathe can lead to posture changes over time, like shoulders rolled forward, back hunching, and raised shoulder blades (scapulae), according to a meta-analysis, which cites stretching can help you loosen those areas, making way for wider lung expansion, deeper breaths, and improved symptoms.

 The American Lung Association recommends stretching before and after all exercise.


Sometimes called resistance training, strengthening exercises build up all your muscles, including those that help you take a deep breath.

 This doesn’t mean you have to hit the gym and lift massive weights, though. Your provider can show you some simple exercises to do at home and discuss any supplies you’ll need. For maximum strength-building, the ALA suggests doing resistance training exercises three or four times each week.

The Takeaway

Lung damage from COPD cannot be reversed with exercise, but exercise can improve your symptoms and help prevent flare-ups. Depending on the condition severity, effective exercises for COPD include pulmonary rehabilitation, aerobic exercise, stretching, and strengthening.


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