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What Is Pulmonary Rehabilitation?

Reviewed by: HU Medical Review Board | Last reviewed: May 2024

Pulmonary rehabilitation is a specialized type of therapy. The word “pulmonary” has to do with your lungs. Pulmonary rehabilitation or rehab is meant to help you breathe better. It can help people with long-term (chronic) lung problems like pulmonary hypertension. This is high blood pressure in your lungs.1

Pulmonary rehab is used along with other treatments, like medicine. If you have this type of rehab, you will work with a team of specialists. They will coach you on:2

  • Ways to increase your ability to exercise
  • Behavior changes
  • Figuring out what causes your breathlessness
  • Ways to reduce your symptoms and perform daily activities

In addition to helping a person breathe more easily and return to important daily activities, pulmonary rehab often improves depression, anxiety, and the ability to think (cognition). It may also reduce hospitalizations.2

Pulmonary rehab does not replace the need to treat your underlying condition. Talk with your health care team before starting, stopping, or changing any medicines.

Do I need pulmonary rehabilitation?

Pulmonary rehab may be prescribed for people with conditions such as:1,2

  • Pulmonary hypertension
  • Asthma
  • COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease)
  • Cystic fibrosis
  • Pulmonary fibrosis
  • Sarcoidosis
  • Muscular dystrophy

How do I get pulmonary rehabilitation?

Each person needs a different combination of professionals to reduce their breathlessness and fatigue. Your team may include:2,3

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  • Doctor (pulmonology and family doctor)
  • Nurse
  • Physical therapist
  • Respiratory therapist
  • Exercise specialist
  • Dietitian
  • Psychologist or social worker

Rehab sessions may take place in a hospital, a clinic, or at home. Some people receive rehab alone. Some receive it as part of a group.1,3

What happens during pulmonary rehabilitation?

First, your pulmonary rehab team will go over your medical history and current treatments. They will run tests to measure your lung function and ability to exercise. They may order blood tests, check your mental health, and ask about your diet.1

Your test results and medical history will help the team create a plan that targets your specific symptoms.1

Your plan may include:1,2

  • Exercise training to improve your endurance, muscle strength, and flexibility. You may lift weights, climb stairs, ride a stationary bike, or use a treadmill, resistance bands, or arm crank.
  • Nutrition counseling to help you reach a healthy weight. Being overweight or underweight can make breathing harder.
  • Disease education to help you learn more about your condition and how to manage it. You may need to learn how to identify and avoid situations that make your symptoms worse, how to avoid infections, or how and when to take your medicines.
  • Breathing techniques to improve your breathing by increasing your oxygen levels, reducing the number of breaths you take, and keeping your airways open longer.
  • Techniques for managing energy that help you perform your daily tasks.
  • Support for quitting smoking, if you are a smoker
  • Counseling and stress management to help you deal better with stress. Stress uses energy and may affect your breathing. Counseling and group support can help you feel less alone and help you learn what works for others.

How much exercise will I need to do?

Pulmonary rehabilitation starts slowly and goes longer as you build strength and endurance. Common goals include:2

  • Riding a bike or walking for 20 to 60 minutes, 3 to 5 times a week
  • Performing interval training (intense exercise followed by rest) 3 to 5 times a week
  • Weight training 2 to 3 times a week

If you have a condition like pulmonary hypertension, you should keep doing your exercises after rehab has stopped. This will help you maintain your quality of life.2

What are the benefits of pulmonary rehabilitation?

Studies show that pulmonary rehab:2

  • Improves quality of life
  • Reduces depression and anxiety
  • Reduces the risk of death for 1 year following rehab
  • Reduces healthcare costs by keeping you healthier

Staying safe while exercising at home

Your pulmonary rehab team can share suggestions for how to stay safe while exercising at home. These may include:4

  • Asking your doctor or physical therapist what exercises are safest for you to perform at home
  • Planning to exercise at a time when you have the most energy
  • Exercising with a partner
  • Remembering to breathe as you exercise
  • Warming up and cooling down each time

You may feel short of breath during exercise. But you should not feel exhausted, light-headed, or dizzy. You should be able to talk and feel in control. If you cannot, slow down and get control of your breath. If your shortness of breath does not improve after 5 minutes, call 911 or your doctor.4

Treatment results and side effects can vary from person to person. This treatment information is not meant to replace professional medical advice. Talk to your doctor about what to expect before starting and while taking any treatment.

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