Programmes focus on education and exercise. They usually last 6–12 weeks.
The programme teaches you how to use what you learn to look after yourself after it ends.
What does pulmonary rehabilitation involve?
Pulmonary rehabilitation classes are run by physiotherapists and respiratory teams. They are often held at local hospitals or community centres 2 or 3 times per week. The 2 main components of a pulmonary rehabilitation programme are exercise and education.
An individual exercise programme is designed for you and takes your health into account. The programme is gentle at first and increases as your fitness improves. You may be given home exercises so that when the programme ends you will know how to stay fit at home.
If you prefer not to exercise, the physiotherapist can discuss other activity options such as Sing your lungs out, a community-based singing group for people with lung disease.
The education session covers information and tips on topics such as:
your lung disease or condition and how to manage it
how to eat a healthy and balanced diet
psychological counselling and/or group support.
What are the benefits of pulmonary rehabilitation?
Attending a programme won't cure your lung disease or completely ease your breathing problems, but it can help you function better in your daily life. Pulmonary rehabilitation improves the quality of life and reduces hospital admissions of people with COPD.
Taking part in pulmonary rehabilitation can improve your fitness and muscle strength. This makes you feel more confident to do things. It helps use the oxygen you breathe more efficiently and helps you cope better with feeling out of breath. It can also help you feel better mentally.
Both smokers and non-smokers can benefit from attending pulmonary rehabilitation, as the programme focuses on improving quality of life.
How do I find in a pulmonary rehabilitation programme?
Ask your GP or nurse about a pulmonary rehabilitation programme in your area. There are a range of programmes around the country, including some offered by local DHBs or branches of the Asthma & Respiratory Foundation that are tailored for Māori or Pasifika people.
You can search for a service in your area here (type the words 'pulmonary rehabilitation' in the search box).
The following links have more information about pulmonary rehabilitation. Be aware that websites from other countries may have information that differs from New Zealand recommendations.
Dr Sharon Leitch is a general practitioner and clinical research training fellow in the Department of General Practice and Rural Health at the University of Otago. Her area of research is patient safety in primary care and safe medicine use.
Credits: Health Navigator Editorial Team . Reviewed By: Dr Sharon Leitch, GP and clinical research training fellow, University of Otago
Last reviewed: 01 May 2020
Jeannie Sullivan started smoking when she was 21. She started with a packet lasting a fortnight and slowly moved onto a packet a day by her late 30s. Jeannie is proud to say she finally stopped smoking about 10 years ago.
Unfortunately, the damage had been done. Jeannie thought she had asthma so went to her GP and was told she had emphysema or COPD.
Jeannie says one of the best things that ever happened to her was going to pulmonary rehabilitation. She looked forward to the twice a week classes and socialising, getting fit and learning about how to manage COPD. Read about how it changed her life: One of the best things that ever happened to me – going to rehab! Asthma Foundation, NZ, 2013
Information for health professionals on COPD
This page will be of most interest to clinicians (nurses, doctors, pharmacists and specialists) or those seeking more detail.
Pulmonary rehabilitation is an umbrella term for a structured programme which offers supervised exercise and education to patients with COPD, usually over a period of eight weeks
Pulmonary rehabilitation is known to relieve dyspnoea and fatigue, improve mental health and quality of life, and increase the sense of control that patients with COPD have over their health while reducing their risk of hospitalisation
All symptomatic patients with COPD will benefit from pulmonary rehabilitation, particularly:
After discharge from hospital following an exacerbation
When symptoms are progressively deteriorating
Health professionals may need to use creative strategies to adapt the basic components of pulmonary rehabilitation for patients unable to attend formal programmes.
Pulmonary rehabilitation is defined as “an evidence-based, multidisciplinary, and comprehensive intervention for patients with chronic respiratory diseases who are symptomatic and often have decreased daily life activities. Integrated into the individualised treatment of the patient, pulmonary rehabilitation is designed to reduce symptoms, optimise functional status, increase participation, and reduce health care costs through stabilising or reversing systemic manifestations of the disease”. Nici L, Donner C, Wouters E, et al. American Thoracic Society/European Respiratory Society statement on pulmonary rehabilitation Am J Respir Crit Care Med 2006; 173:1390–1413.
Pulmonary rehabilitation is evidence-based for COPD
A Cochrane review of 65 randomised controlled trials confirms the benefit of pulmonary rehabilitation. They found that pulmonary rehabilitation relieves dyspnoea and fatigue, improves emotional function and enhances the sense of control that individuals have over their condition. These improvements are moderately large and clinically significant. McCarthy B, Casey D, Devane D, Murphy K, Murphy E Lacasse Y. Pulmonary rehabilitation for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, 2015.
A further Cochrane review looked at whether pulmonary rehabilitation was safe after a hospital admission with a COPD exacerbation and concluded that pulmonary rehabilitation reduced hospital admissions and mortality compared with usual community care (no rehabilitation). Quality of life was also improved. Pulmonary rehabilitation appears to be a highly effective and safe intervention in COPD patients after suffering an exacerbation. Puhan MA, Gimeno-Santos E, et al. Pulmonary rehabilitation following exacerbations of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, 2016.
Poor referral and participation rates
Making sure your patients attend a pulmonary rehabilitation programme is one of the most useful treatments you can offer your patients with COPD.
More recent research has found still only 2% of uptake of eligible patients and cultural difference in attendance. McNaughton AA, Weatherall M, Williams G, Delacey D, George C, Beasley R. An audit of pulmonary rehabilitation program Clinical Audit, 2016