COPD – Exercise v Nutrition?


Managing COPD is vital for any patient who wants to either improve or maintain their quality of life. Apart from taking medication as prescribed, exercise has long been championed as the next best tool to manage COPD. But is it? Data I have been collecting for my own case study would suggest, while exercise is very important, maybe there are more effective strategies.

Pulmonary Rehabilitation

Anyone who has followed my journey over the last 10 years would know I love and value the role of exercise in managing COPD. Exercise, education and support groups are some of the key benefits of any good pulmonary rehabilitation program. This article is not designed to challenge the importance of pulmonary rehabilitation but question where it fits into the management of our disease.

Apart from my medication, exercise was the main component of managing my COPD from 2011 to 2016. But when I look back at my exercise hours and lung function test results during this time my exercise volume did not change my lung function results. In this time, I completed 3 Ironman events, multiple marathons and half marathons. It would be fair to say my exercise capacity was more than most COPD patients.


Like exercise, nutrition has become my obsession in managing my COPD. I have tried different diet strategies including – paleo, high carb, low carb and for the past 4 years, keto! I have come to the conclusion there is no one diet which fits everyone. In saying this, I do believe if your diet consists of regular meals including bread, pasta, rice, sugar and processed/starchy carbohydrates, its likely to be affecting your ability to breathe. Science also would suggest this to be the case. For the science, please read my article – Click here.


Exercise v Nutrition

From November 2011 until the end of 2015, I recorded 880 hours of exercise, this doesn’t include my daily step count which is rarely under 10,000 steps. In this time, I recorded a 5% improvement in my FEV1 score – .87L to .91L.

From January 2016 to December 2020, I recorded 616 hours of exercise, again not including my daily step count. My FEV1 in this time improved by 33%. Both lung function measurements were averaged over a number of tests as I realise a single test doesn’t mean much.

Both exercise and nutrition have a role to play in managing COPD but is there a preferred hierarchy to how these strategies are utilised. Improving a patient’s ability to breathe through nutrition prior to starting exercise, has one major advantage over the exercise first paradigm. Patients are more likely to continue with exercise if breathlessness is reduced. Asking a breathless patient to make themselves more breathless through exercise can be a difficult hurdle to overcome. With this in mind should patients be encouraged to seek nutritional advice before starting an exercise program? Makes sense to me.

We know one size doesn’t fit all when it comes to managing COPD so offering a variety of strategies for patients and healthcare professionals to utilise can only improve outcomes for patients.

5 responses to “COPD – Exercise v Nutrition?

  1. How can i improve my working situation, i exercise but get out of breath easily when doing active work

    1. If you have copd then breathless is part of life. Exercise absolutely helps but will not eliminate breathlessness all together. I have a physical job and still get breathless. Keep being consistent with exercise, eat suitable foods and take your meds. all the best.

  2. I can relate to some of what is mentioned in your write up. I was raised with Brochiectasis in a coal mining village in Scotland, which was near a major ship-building industry where the Queen Mary and other large Liners were built, as well as warships during WWII. This meant the surrounding air had coal dust waste product stored above ground, and well as asbestos (contaminant from the shipbuilding). I’ve been active in sports my whole life, playing competitive soccer at all levels before and after immigrating to the USA. I became an avid cyclist in my mid-30’s, also completed many marathons and half-marathons, and at 68 competed and finished the first of 3 Ironman events, much like you. I would have continued but the pandemic cancelled races for over a year and I have focused on my cycling. I currently use an inhaler each morning and take a “rescue” inhaler on my rides. In addition to riding 150 miles/week, I also do weight and yoga routines, but feel the need to improve and master a Nutrition program.

  3. Hi, I live in Calif am 83 used to be a runner and 3 day eventing on horses I have had my hips both knees reolaced twice one foot and a shoulder replaced am 5’7 and weighed 155-160 a very long time and gained ten lbs which makes a difference in my life have done Paleo and lost 35 lbs now I am having a hard time doing it again to lose weight any suggestions or clues. thanks Linda

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