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Keeping active with a lung condition

Pulmonary rehabilitation (PR)

Pulmonary rehabilitation (PR) is a treatment programme that can help you stay active if you have a lung condition. You’ll do physical exercises and get advice from professionals about managing your condition. You can find out more on this page.

On this page:

What is pulmonary rehabilitation (PR)?

Pulmonary rehabilitation (PR) is a treatment programme made up of:

  • a physical exercise programme, designed for people with lung conditions and tailored for you
  • information on looking after your body and your lungs, and advice on managing your condition and your symptoms, including feeling short of breath

It’s designed for people diagnosed with a lung condition who are breathless. Your PR team will be made up of trained health care professionals such as physiotherapists, nurses and occupational therapists.

A course of PR usually lasts 6 to 8 weeks, with 2 sessions of about 2 hours each week. You’ll be in a group of about 8-16 people. PR courses are held in local hospitals, community halls, leisure centres and health centres. 

Can’t get to a PR class due to shielding or social distancing? Find out how you can carry on with pulmonary rehabilitation at home.

Completing a course of PR is a good way to learn how to exercise safely and at the right level for you.  Most people enjoy the course. It builds confidence and it’s great fun meeting others in a similar situation.

‘Pulmonary rehabilitation is the most beneficial treatment I have received… not only for the exercise provided but more importantly for the education given.’ Colin

How will PR help me?

PR can:

  • improve your muscle strength so you can use the oxygen you breathe more efficiently and become less breathless
  • help you cope better with feeling out of breath
  • improve your fitness so you feel more confident to do everyday tasks
  • help you feel better mentally
  • help you understand and manage your condition better.

PR helps you manage your condition and makes you feel better, but it’s not a cure. You’re unlikely to see a change in your lung function, so you may not see a difference in breathing test results. What it can do is help you make the most of the lung function that you have. There’s evidence that it improves your ability to walk further, helps you feel less tired and breathless doing day-to-day activities and reduces your risk of ending up in hospital.

‘When I started the course, I could barely walk 500 metres before becoming too breathless to continue. By the end of six weeks, I could walk 1500 metres. It’s not about getting better - it’s about living better with my condition’ John

PR can also help you enjoy life. Most people enjoy the course. It builds confidence and it’s great fun meeting others in a similar situation.

Who should go to PR?

PR is aimed at people with a lung condition whose ability to be active is affected by breathing difficulties. It can benefit people with long-term lung conditions, including:

If you struggle with walking, have uncontrolled heart problems or have recently had a heart attack, PR might not be suitable for you at the moment. Ask your GP or cardiologist about cardiac rehabilitation.

You can do PR if you use oxygen

People who use oxygen to help manage their condition will be assessed to see if a portable oxygen cylinder is needed during the class. If you’ve been prescribed oxygen and told that your oxygen levels drop when you exercise, portable oxygen treatment may increase how much exercise you can do.

How do I get PR?

Everyone should be referred for PR if they need it. Your GP, practice nurse or respiratory team should refer you. Ask them if PR is right for you and what’s available in your area. You may be able to bring a family member or carer with you.

Some programmes will have waiting lists, so the sooner you act, the sooner you can start. If you’re told you’re not eligible for PR, you could try other ways of being active.

“Once I started, it just got easier and easier!”

Bob was diagnosed with COPD in his 60s.

“When I first started feeling chesty, I was diagnosed with asthma. Whenever I felt worse I’d use my inhaler and my symptoms would steady off. But some years later I started to get really breathless and was re-diagnosed with COPD. 

Within months my breathlessness forced me into early retirement. But then I wasn’t getting any exercise and the breathlessness started to show even more. I couldn’t take care of my allotment any more. That helped me make up my mind to do something about it. 

That’s when I discovered pulmonary rehabilitation. I felt so much better straight away! I realised how easy it was to get back into shape. And once I started, it just got easier and easier!

I go to the gym three times a week now, and spend ten minutes on a bike, on a rowing machine and on a stepper. In between, I lift weights. 

Starting PR isn’t easy – the initial push is really hard. But I’m so glad I took the plunge.”

What happens on a PR course? 

A typical PR course will always start with an assessment of your health and abilities. Your PR team will ask questions to understand you and your body, so they can help you get the best out of the course.

Physical exercise

At each session, you’ll spend about half the time on physical exercise. This will be designed to provide the right level of activity for you. You’ll get out of breath, but this is part of the therapy. You’ll always be monitored and won’t be asked to do more than you can safely do.

Here are some examples of typical upper body, lower body and stretching exercises, taken from our exercise handbook.

Examples of PR exercises: knee lift, bicep curl and thigh stretch.

Information and discussion

For the rest of the time, you’ll learn about topics such as:

  • why exercise is so important for people with lung conditions
  • ways to be more positive about exercise
  • how to use breathing techniques during physical activity or when you feel anxious 
  • how to manage anxiety and low mood 
  • how to use your inhalers and other medicines
  • how to eat healthily 
  • how to stop smoking
  • what to do when you’re unwell 

‘I am loving this group. We do as much exercise as we can for the first hour, then a cuppa and a talk. Brilliant. It has helped so much to lift my spirits.’ Jude

For PR to really work you need to be committed, attend sessions regularly and follow the advice given by your team. 

What happens after PR? 

After you’ve completed your course, staying active will help you keep up the progress you’ve made. You can carry on using the techniques you’ve learned. 

Your PR team might refer you to a follow-up exercise programme – ask them if this is an option. Or try one of the other ways we’ve suggested to keep active.

If there’s no follow-up programme, or you don’t want to visit the gym, you can carry on with pulmonary rehabilitation at home. Ask your therapist for a copy of our exercise handbook, or download your copy here.

Next: How to stay motivated >

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Download our keep active information (PDF, 160KB)

Last medically reviewed: August 2020. Due for review: August 2023

This information uses the best available medical evidence and was produced with the support of people living with lung conditions. Find out how we produce our information. If you’d like to see our references get in touch.