Oxygen therapy during exercise training in chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)

People with COPD often have severe shortness of breath that prevents them from performing their everyday activities. Formal rehabilitation programs that include exercise training improve stamina, decrease breathlessness and enhance quality of life. Use of oxygen during exercise may provide additional benefit. We conducted a review to determine the effectiveness of adding oxygen to exercise training in comparison to exercise training without oxygen supplementation in people with COPD. Five studies addressed the question although, because of measurement of different outcomes, the maximum number available for looking at any individual outcome was three (31 patients receiving oxygen versus 32 not). People with COPD may exercise longer and have less shortness of breath when using oxygen during an exercise-training program. These studies did not look at the effect of oxygen on shortness of breath in daily life. From the evidence to date, it is not possible to determine whether individuals with COPD should use oxygen during exercise training. Stronger studies with more participants are required in order to understand how oxygen-supplemented exercise training for people with COPD will affect their shortness of breath, activity and quality of life.

Authors' conclusions: 

This review provides little support for oxygen supplementation during exercise training for individuals with COPD, but the evidence is very limited. Studies with larger number of participants and strong design are required to permit strong conclusions, especially for functional outcomes such as symptom alleviation, health-related quality of life and ambulation.

Read the full abstract...

Exercise training within the context of pulmonary rehabilitation improves outcomes of exercise capacity, dyspnea and health-related quality of life in individuals with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Supplemental oxygen in comparison to placebo increases exercise capacity in patients performing single-assessment exercise tests. The addition of supplemental oxygen during exercise training may enable individuals with COPD to tolerate higher levels of activity with less exertional symptoms, ultimately improving quality of life.


To determine how supplemental oxygen in comparison to control (compressed air or room air) during the exercise-training component of a pulmonary rehabilitation program affects exercise capacity, dyspnea and health-related quality of life in individuals with COPD.

Search strategy: 

All records in the Cochrane Airways Group Specialized Register of trials coded as 'COPD' were searched using the following terms: (oxygen* or O2*) AND (exercis* or train* or rehabilitat* or fitness* or physical* or activ* or endur* or exert* or walk* or cycle*). Searching the Cochrane Central Register of Controlled Trials (CENTRAL, The Cochrane Library), MEDLINE, EMBASE and CINAHL databases identified studies. The last search was carried out in June 2009.

Selection criteria: 

Only randomized controlled trials (RCTs) comparing oxygen-supplemented exercise training to non-supplemented exercise training (control group) were considered for inclusion. Participants were 18 years or older, diagnosed with COPD and did not meet criteria for long-term oxygen therapy. No studies with mixed populations (pulmonary fibrosis, cystic fibrosis, etc) were included. Exercise training was greater than or equal to three weeks in duration and included a minimum of two sessions a week.

Data collection and analysis: 

Two review authors independently selected trials for inclusion in the review and extracted data. Weighted mean differences (WMD) with 95% confidence intervals (CI) were calculated using a random-effects model. Missing data were requested from authors of primary studies.

Main results: 

Five RCTs met the inclusion criteria. The maximum number of studies compared in the meta-analysis was three (31 on oxygen versus 32 control participants), because all included studies did not measure the same outcomes. When two studies were pooled, statistically significant improvements of oxygen-supplemented exercise training were found in constant power exercise time, WMD 2.68 minutes (95% CI 0.07 to 5.28 minutes). Supplemental oxygen increased the average exercise time from 6 to 14 minutes; the control intervention increased average exercise time from 6 to 12 minutes. Constant power exercise end-of-test Borg score (on a scale from 1 to 10) also showed statistically significant improvements with oxygen-supplemented exercise training, WMD -1.22 units (95% CI -2.39 to -0.06). One study showed a significant improvement in the change of Borg score after the shuttle walk test, by -1.46 units (95% CI -2.72 to -0.19). There were no significant differences in maximal exercise outcomes, functional exercise outcomes (six-minute walk test), shuttle walk distance, health-related quality of life or oxygenation status. According to the GRADE system most outcomes were rated as low quality because they were limited by study quality.