What are the most effective ways to encourage people with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) to be more physically active?


Being physically active is important for everyone's health. It can be particularly difficult for people with COPD and we do not know the best way to improve physical activity.

Study characteristics

This review includes 76 studies involving 8018 people with COPD (published before 27 June 2019). Most studies were funded by government bodies, although some were sponsored by equipment or drug manufacturers. Many strategies have been developed and different studies have measured physical activity in lots of different ways. This means that it was hard to compare and combine their findings. It was also hard to tell exactly what was involved in some of the interventions, and therefore which components were important for improving physical activity.

Key results

Some studies looked at current interventions for people with COPD, including pulmonary rehabilitation and different types of exercise training as well as self-management and education. Other studies have looked at special types of nutritional supplements, oxygen therapy, surgery, muscle stimulation and singing.

Some strategies that did work involved exercise training, physical activity counselling and COPD medications. Some studies showed that people did an extra 6 to 24 minutes of at least moderate-intensity physical activity, as well as walking for longer or taking more steps each day. However, we are still uncertain about when or how these approaches should be used. Only a few studies followed people up after the intervention finished. It is not clear exactly what needs to be done to improve physical activity in the long term, which is what may be required for health benefits.

Quality of the evidence

The quality of evidence was generally low, due to difficulties working out exactly what people did in the studies, and also because there were lots of single studies (some quite small) looking at different types of interventions. This means that it was difficult to generalise these findings to all people with COPD.

Authors' conclusions: 

A diverse range of interventions have been assessed, primarily in single studies. Improvements in physical activity have not been systematically demonstrated following any particular intervention. There was limited evidence for improvement in physical activity with strategies including exercise training, physical activity counselling and pharmacological management. The optimal timing, components, duration and models for interventions are still unclear. Assessment of quality was limited by a lack of methodological detail. There was scant evidence for a continued effect over time following completion of interventions, a likely requirement for meaningful health benefits for people with COPD.

Read the full abstract...

Escalating awareness of the magnitude of the challenge posed by low levels of physical activity in people with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) highlights the need for interventions to increase physical activity participation. The widely-accepted benefits of physical activity, coupled with the increasing availability of wearable monitoring devices to objectively measure participation, has led to a dramatic rise in the number and variety of studies that aimed to improve the physical activity of people with COPD. However, little was known about the relative efficacy of interventions tested so far.


In people with COPD, which interventions are effective at improving objectively-assessed physical activity?

Search strategy: 

We identified trials from the Cochrane Airways Trials Register Register, which contains records identified from bibliographic databases including the Cochrane Central Register of Controlled Trials, MEDLINE, Embase, CINAHL, AMED, and PsycINFO. We also searched PEDro, ClinicalTrials.gov, the World Health Organization International Clinical Trials Registry Platform portal and the Australian New Zealand Clinical Trials Registry (from inception to June 2019). We checked reference lists of all primary studies and review articles for additional references, as well as respiratory journals and respiratory meeting abstracts, to identify relevant studies.

Selection criteria: 

We included randomised controlled trials of interventions that used objective measures for the assessment of physical activity in people with COPD. Trials compared an intervention with no intervention or a sham/placebo intervention, an intervention in addition to another standard intervention common to both groups, or two different interventions.

Data collection and analysis: 

We used standard methods recommended by Cochrane. Subgroup analyses were possible for supervised compared to unsupervised pulmonary rehabilitation programmes in clinically-stable COPD for a range of physical activity outcomes. Secondary outcomes were health-related quality of life, exercise capacity, adverse events and adherence. Insufficient data were available to perform prespecified subgroup analyses by duration of intervention or disease severity. We undertook sensitivity analyses by removing studies that were at high or unclear risk of bias for the domains of blinding and incomplete outcome data.

Main results: 

We included 76 studies with 8018 participants. Most studies were funded by government bodies, although some were sponsored by equipment or drug manufacturers. Only 38 studies had physical activity as a primary outcome. A diverse range of interventions have been assessed, primarily in single studies, but improvements have not been systematically demonstrated following any particular interventions. Where improvements were demonstrated, results were confined to single studies, or data for maintained improvement were not provided. Step count was the most frequently reported outcome, but it was commonly assessed using devices with documented inaccuracy for this variable.

Compared to no intervention, the mean difference (MD) in time in moderate- to vigorous-intensity physical activity (MVPA) following pulmonary rehabilitation was four minutes per day (95% confidence interval (CI) −2 to 9; 3 studies, 190 participants; low-certainty evidence). An improvement was demonstrated following high-intensity interval exercise training (6 minutes per day, 95% CI 4 to 8; 2 studies, 275 participants; moderate-certainty evidence). One study demonstrated an improvement following six months of physical activity counselling (MD 11 minutes per day, 95% CI 7 to 15; 1 study, 280 participants; moderate-certainty evidence), but we found mixed results for the addition of physical activity counselling to pulmonary rehabilitation. There was an improvement following three to four weeks of pharmacological treatment with long-acting muscarinic antagonist and long-acting beta2-agonist (LAMA/LABA) compared to placebo (MD 10 minutes per day, 95% CI 4 to 15; 2 studies, 423 participants; high-certainty evidence). These interventions also demonstrated improvements in other measures of physical activity.

Other interventions included self-management strategies, nutritional supplementation, supplemental oxygen, endobronchial valve surgery, non-invasive ventilation, neuromuscular electrical stimulation and inspiratory muscle training.