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Living Well with COPD

If you have COPD, eating right and exercise can help you fight off infections. While your doctor is your best source for information, the American Association for Respiratory Care has a few tips on nutrition and exercise to help you.

Eat well.

A good diet is important when you have COPD. If you don’t get enough protein the body will actually break down muscle to provide the protein needed. The muscles you use for breathing can be weakened and you could lose strength.

COPD can make even the simplest activities tiring. Many people with COPD find that eating makes them more short of breath.  Instead of trying to eat three large meals, eat six small meals. When your stomach is full, it pushes up against the lungs and makes it hard to get a deep breath.

  • Choose easy- to-prepare foods so that you don’t spend a lot of energy fixing the food. If you live alone or do not have help in preparing your meals, check into programs in your community that will bring meals to your home.
  • Rest after eating.
  • Drink plenty of fluids unless your doctor tells you not to. Water is important to help keep your mucous thin and easier to cough up.
  • Avoid foods that cause gas.  This is usually different for each person. Pay attention to what foods make you feel bloated.
  • Avoid too much salt in your diet. Sodium in salt can cause you to build up fluid, making it harder for you to breathe. Many prepared and “fast” foods have a lot of sodium. Learn to read labels.
  • Eat foods that are high in protein and low in trans fats. Limit breads and foods that are high in sugar.


Stay away from situations that can make you short of air.

  • Decrease your chances of infection by staying out of crowds during cold and flu season. Use antibacterial gel or wash your hands often, especially after handling money or opening doors in public places. Clean your nebulizer cup as instructed by the medical equipment company.
  • Be aware of the signs that you have an infection.  If you run a fever or start to have an increased cough with a change in the color of your mucous, you need to call your doctor, especially if you also feel more short of air.
  • Decrease your exposure to irritants in the air such as smoke, dust, aerosol sprays, cold air, and high humidity. Listen to the weather reports and decrease your time outdoors when the ozone level is high.


Develop good medication-taking habits.

  • Make sure you know why you are taking medications and how they work.  Ask your doctor or respiratory therapist to explain each medication and to provide information that you can understand. Check with your doctor before taking any over-the-counter medications or vitamin supplements.
  • Refill your inhalers before you run out.  Don’t wait until they are empty. For inhalers that don’t include counters, write the date you started using each one on a piece of tape to put on the inhaler, or keep a calendar. Ask your respiratory therapist to help you calculate how long your inhalers will last.
  • Don’t stop taking medications until you have checked with your provider.  If a medication is causing you problems, notify your doctor so that he/she can suggest a solution or change your medication.
  • If you can’t afford your medications, let your health care provider know. There are programs through the drug companies to help those that have a fixed or low income. 


Stay active and learn how to simplify activities around the house.

When you exercise, your muscles become better at using oxygen so you don’t need as much oxygen to move around and the lungs don’t have to work so hard.

  • Ask your doctor before starting to exercise.  Some people with breathing problems have a lower than normal oxygen level when they exercise. Have your doctor check you to see if you need to use oxygen when active. When your oxygen level is low, it causes your heart to be stressed.
  • Start slow.  If you are very short of breath with any activity, don’t overdo by trying too much too soon. Start by walking in place a few minutes at a time and increase the time as you go.
  • Stop and rest if you get short of breath. If you have chest pain, feel dizzy or weak or sick to your stomach, sit down. Call your doctor or go to the emergency room if you still feel bad after resting.
  • Start doing fun activities.  Remember that dancing and gardening are forms of exercise, too.

Ask your doctor to order pulmonary rehabilitation.
See if there is a pulmonary rehabilitation program in your area. This is a program designed especially for persons with breathing problems and is often paid for by insurance.  Respiratory therapists, physical therapists and others work with you on an exercise plan as well as your diet and how to breathe to avoid shortness of breath.

For more information on COPD, visit

Reviewed: May 26, 2005
Revised: June 2008

© 2019 American Association for Respiratory Care