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Pulmonary rehab for COPD can help you breathe easier

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Do you have chronic obstructive pulmonary disease? Here's how a rehabilitation program can boost your energy and improve your quality of life.

As many as 15 million people have chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).1 If you’re one of them, you know it can keep you from doing the things you love. It lowers the airflow in and out of your lungs. And that can make you feel out-of-breath and tired.

Some of the symptoms of COPD include:

  • Chronic cough
  • Shortness of breath
  • Frequent lung infections
  • Blueness of your fingernail tips or your fingernail beds
  • Constant tiredness
  • Lots of mucus (fluid that coats the inside of the nose, mouth and other parts of the body)
  • Wheezing

Sometimes, you can have a COPD flareup. You might be more tired than usual. Or you might feel a tightness in your chest. Your cough could get so bad that it’s hard to catch your breath.

But try not to give up hope. There may be no cure for COPD, but there are treatments.1 Medicines and, when needed, oxygen can help. And making small changes, like exercising, can improve how you feel. But one of the best ways to care for your COPD is with pulmonary rehabilitation. (Learn other ways to keep your lungs healthy.) 

Rehab can help people with COPD boost their energy and live a happier, fuller life. A 2022 study of 2,397 patients with COPD found that those who did rehab could breathe easier. Plus, they could walk much farther in a six-minute walk test. The walk test helps doctors gauge how serious the condition is.2

Yet only 6% of patients with COPD try rehab.3 Why? “Until recently, pulmonary rehab wasn’t widely available,” explains Barbara Yawn, MD. She’s a spokesperson for the American Academy of Family Physicians. And it can sometimes be difficult to get to a rehab center. People who live in remote rural areas, for example, are less likely to take part in these programs.“But both have improved with better insurance coverage and the availability of tele-rehab programs,” says Dr. Yawn.

These programs are worth seeking out. “Patients who do rehab have a better quality of life,” says Lawrence Shulman, DO. He’s the chief medical officer for Optum Tri-State – ProHEALTH in New Hyde Park, New York. “They feel more in control of their own disease.”

Wondering if pulmonary rehab could be right for you? Keep reading for answers to your most common questions.

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What exactly happens at pulmonary rehab?

Programs typically run for about 12 weeks, with two or three sessions each week, says Dr. Yawn. Rehab usually takes place at a hospital or a clinic. But you may be able to do some types of rehab at home by telehealth, says Dr. Yawn. Here’s what you can expect. You’ll:

  • Learn more about COPD symptoms and medications
  • Take exercise classes
  • Try new breathing techniques
  • Learn about healthy eating
  • Get mental health support5

“You’ll have an activity program designed just for you,” explains Dr. Yawn.

Who runs pulmonary rehab programs?

You’ll have an entire team of people helping you, including doctors, nurses, physical therapists, respiratory therapists and dietitian. There will likely even be mental health specialists on your team. That’s important, because people with COPD often have anxiety and/or depression.5

The most important part of the team: your classmates. You’ll find new friends who know just what you’re going through. They’ll help to boost your confidence, too. “I like programs that let you interact with the other people doing rehab,” says Dr. Yawn. “It helps with the loneliness and depression you might be feeling. And your classmates can give you practical tips, too.”

What are the benefits of pulmonary rehab?

COPD rehab can help you manage everyday activities better. That includes everything from going to work to hanging out with friends to doing ordinary tasks around the house. It can help you get stronger and reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety.6 In a recent study, COPD patients who completed an eight-week rehab program saw big improvements in their breathing, their ability to walk, and their symptoms of anxiety and depression.

Another rehab benefit: Researchers found that doing rehabilitation not only improves your health, but it can also save you as much $5,721.7 That’s because COPD rehab teaches you ways to stay healthy and out of the hospital.

That all adds up to a big boost in quality of life.

But when researchers followed up with rehab patients two years later, many of their improvements had disappeared.8

That’s why you need to keep doing the exercises you learn at rehab even after your course is over. If you don’t use it, you lose it. “Find out if there’s an after program to help you keep doing your activities and to answer future questions,” Dr. Yawn suggests. Or get together with classmates to keep up with the exercises and encourage one another.

How can I find a COPD rehab program?

First, ask your doctor. “Unfortunately, many doctors get so busy with medications and treating flare-ups that they forget to suggest rehab,” says Dr. Yawn. “If your doctor or nurse doesn’t suggest rehab, ask about it yourself.”

Or look for a rehab program online. For a healthier, happier life, take that first step. “Rehab lets you learn about your disease and treatments,” says Dr. Schulman. “And best of all, you get support from other COPD patients and are looked after by professionals.”


  1. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. What is COPD? Last updated March 24, 2022. Accessed September 6, 2022.
  2. Annals of Medicine. Effect of pulmonary rehabilitation in patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease: A systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. Accessed September 6, 2022.
  3. Revista Médica de Chile. Low rates of participation and completion of pulmonary rehabilitation in patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease in primary health care. Published November 2018. Accessed September 6, 2022.
  4. Annals of the American Thoracic Society. Participation in pulmonary rehabilitation after hospitalization for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease among medicare beneficiaries. Published May 15, 2018. Accessed September 6, 2022.
  5. American Lung Association. How pulmonary rehab helps you breathe. Published March 14, 2016. Accessed September 6, 2022.
  6. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. Pulmonary rehabilitation. Published March 24, 2022. Accessed September 6, 2022.
  7. JAMA Network. Cost-effectiveness of pulmonary rehabilitation among U.S. adults with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Published June 22, 2022. Accessed September 6, 2022.
  8. Chest. Short-term benefits of pulmonary rehabilitation in patients with COPD: A 2-year follow-up study. Published March 2021. Accessed September 6, 2022.

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