Cystic Fibrosis: Physical Activity and Exercise

What is cystic fibrosis?

Cystic fibrosis​ (CF) is a genetic disease. It affects mainly the lungs and digestive tract.

CF causes a build-up of thick mucus in the lungs, which leads to breathing troubles. Mucus in the lungs also benefits bacteria that are responsible for infections. A child with CF may have cycles of infection.

Thick mucus also blocks the ducts of the pancreas. This blocks digestive enzymes from reaching the intestines to digest food. This can increase the risk of malnutrition and delayed development in patients with CF.

Why exercise is important in CF treatment

Exercise benefits us all, but people with CF benefit even more from being physically active because exercise can:

  • slow the rate of decline in lung function, which means children with CF may keep good lung function longer. 
  • help clear mucus from the lungs, allowing for easier breathing. 
  • create more reserve for the whole body to rely on, during periods of lung infection. This means that someone who is fit may be able to resume their activity faster following a bout of illness.

If you have CF, being physically active will not just make you feel better, it will improve your quality of life.

How to get the most out of exercise

There are many types of exercise and each has different benefits. Knowing which exercises will best treat your CF is very helpful. The following are different types of exercise:

  • Endurance: Activities done for extended periods. These make everyday tasks easier.
  • Chest mobility: Activities done to loosen up the chest cavity. These make it easier to breathe.
  • Core strengthening: Activities using muscles of the abdominal (belly) wall. These improve posture and breathing.
  • Leg strengthening: Activities using leg muscles. These make everyday tasks easier to perform.
  • Breathing exercises: Activities done to stretch the lungs. These make breathing feel easier.

Exercises for babies and toddlers


  • Crawling or climbing up stairs
  • Toys pushed by child
  • Water play or infant swim classes
  • Encourage walking and standing during play

Chest mobility:

  • Crawl under or over various surfaces
  • Reach overhead with both hands to grab objects
  • Do activities lying on stomach
  • Throw balls

Core strengthening:

  • Roll
  • Sit independently
  • Push or pull toys

Leg strengthening

  • Climb up and down on couch, bed, or playground
  • Bounce or jump during play 
  • Play in squat position 

Breathing exercises: 

  • Sing songs using high and low pitches 
  • Hold a sound for as long as you can 
  • Blow bubbles 
  • Pretend to blow out candles 

Exercises for preschoolers and school-aged children


  • Games such as tag, hide and seek, red light/green light 
  • Bike, scooter, skateboard 
  • Enroll in sport, dance, or outdoor programs 

Chest mobility:

  • Practice ball skills: throwing, catching, dribbling 
  • Hit a ball with a bat 
  • Rolling on a Swiss ball 

Core strengthening: 

  • Push or pull games such as tug-of-war 
  • Climb at playground 
  • Crab walk 

Leg strengthening: 

  • Jumping games such as hopscotch, long jump, jump rope, trampoline 
  • Walk up and down hills 
  • Jumping jacks 

Breathing exercises: 

  • Blow up balloons 
  • Contests for holding breath and holding a note 
  • Play a wind instrument

Exercises for pre-teens, teens, and adults


  • Go for walks or runs 
  • Get involved in organized sports or clubs 
  • Swim lessons or recreational swimming 
  • Cardio classes at health clubs 

Chest mobility: 

  • Yoga 
  • Shooting a basketball 
  • Swinging a baseball bat, golf club, or tennis racquet 
Core strengthening: 
  • Sit-ups, crunches, and plank pose 
  • Pilates 
  • Sitting on a Swiss ball Leg strengthening: 
  • Plyometrics: standing jumps, long jumps, side jumps, etc. 
  • Run up hills or stairs 
  • Squats 
  • Obstacle courses 

Breathing exercises: 

  • Play a wind instrument 
  • Take singing lessons

Sneaky fitness

"Sneaky fitness" is a great way to exercise without taking time out of your day. Examples include taking the stairs instead of the elevator or escalator, changing television stations without using the remote, and standing or stretching during commercial breaks.

Physical activity, exercise, and your CF team

There are many people on your CF care team with whom you can talk about physical activity and exercise: 

  • Physiotherapists teach different ways to keep your airways clear of secretions. They also work with you to make fun physical activity and exercise part of your everyday life. 
  • Exercise physiotherapists use tests to understand how your body works when it exercises. From these tests, they can suggest areas where you can get stronger. You will see them in the exercise testing lab once a year when you are tall enough to ride a stationary bike. 
  • Dietitians teach you how eating and taking extra enzymes give you the energy you need to be active and strong.

More information

For more information, visit the following:

Key points

  • Being more active can slow down the decline in lung health, strengthen your heart and muscles, and make you feel better about yourself. 
  • You can enjoy a wide range of physical activity. Try to find activities you enjoy. 
  • Your CF care team can help.​​

Jane Schneiderman, PhD, CSEP-CEP

Blythe Owen, MScPT

Donna Wilkes, MSc

Jennifer Agnew, BS(PT), BHK