Take A Breath – Improving Lung Function

Take A Breath – Improving Lung Function

We all know that exercise is key to building and maintaining our muscles and ensuring our overall health. We look to exercise to boost our fitness levels, decrease our waist line, and improve heart health. It should therefore not be surprising that exercise can also contribute to lung health. In the uncertain times of the COVID-19 pandemic, we can all benefit from giving our bodies the best chance to fight infection. As COVID-19 has a strong respiratory effect, improving lung function can only be of benefit.

During physical activity, your heart and lungs work harder to supply additional oxygen to your muscles. As with any other muscles that become stronger during regular exercise, those that work to increase lung function also become stronger through regular exercise. As your lung fitness improves oxygen delivery occurs more efficiently. This is why over time if you exercise regularly you have to do more strenuous exercise before you become short of breath. This occurs through doing any type of exercise. Muscles in the neck, chest, between the ribs and most importantly the diaphragm, can be specifically targeted to improve overall lung function and ensure efficient breathing.

Why Breathing Exercises Help

Around eighty percent of inhaling and exhaling is done by your diaphragm. The diaphragm is a thin skeletal muscle that sits at the base of the chest and separates the abdomen from the chest. It contracts and flattens when you inhale. This creates a vacuum effect that pulls air into the lungs. When you exhale, the diaphragm relaxes and the air is pushed out of lungs. Expelling of air occurs naturally due to the elastic nature of our lungs. When you are ill with a disease that impacts the lungs, this elasticity can be affected. Often, air is not fully expelled in this case and stale air builds up in the lungs leaving less room for the diaphragm to contract and bring in fresh oxygen. The body will attempt to compensate by using other muscle groups, but this can only do so much and overall oxygen levels decrease. Regular breathing exercises can greatly assist in helping lungs shift the accumulated stale air, increasing oxygen levels and ensuring the diaphragm can work efficiently.

Two-Tiered Approach

The staples of pulmonary rehabilitation, which can be applied to anyone seeking to increase lung capacity, are pursed lip breathing and belly breathing.

Pursed lip breathing exercises are designed to decrease the number of breaths you take while keeping your airways open for an extended period of time. This allows a greater amount of air to flow in and out of your lungs. You can practice this exercise throughout the day by simply breathing in through your nose followed by breathing out through your mouth, while your lips are pursed, for twice as long as you breathed in.

Belly breathing is also known as diaphragmic breathing as this is the muscle being targeted. As with the above exercise, start by breathing in through your nose. As you do so, notice how your belly fills up with air. This can be easier to do if you place your hands lightly on your stomach or place something light, such as a small cardboard box, on your stomach so you can feel and visually see your stomach rising and falling as you inhale and exhale. Again, you breath out through your mouth for two to three times longer than your inhalation. Keep your neck and shoulder muscles relaxed so that your diaphragm does most of the work. You will train it to become stronger, ensuring that even in times of lung stress it will be better able to cope.

Practice Makes Perfect

These exercises appear very simple, even so it will take time to ensure you have mastered them. The most benefit can be gained by initially trying to do the exercises when you are not short of breath. Practicing and strengthening your lungs before you become ill can greatly help. It also ensures you are comfortable and know what your lung capacity should be which can help when repeating the exercises when you are short of breath. Experts recommend practicing each of the two exercises for 5-10 minutes every day.

Adapting your Usual Exercise Routine

In terms of your normal exercise routine, there are changes you can make so that they also benefit your lungs to a great degree. Instead of doing steady state exercise, where the oxygen requirements don’t change greatly throughout the session, try to incorporate interval training. Interval training involves alternating a more challenging exercise with a slower recovery period. This can range from doing a short sprint for a minute followed by walking more slowly for two minutes to doing a set of weightlifting exercises followed by slow stretching for a couple of minutes. Interval training allows the lungs a period of recovery before challenging them again with something more strenuous. Over time, this improves lung capacity and decreases shortness of breath during strenuous activity. The pursed lip breathing exercise can be incorporated during the recovery period.

Other Points to Consider

Good posture should also be taken into consideration. As lungs are soft structures, they can only take up as much room as you provide them. Ensuring an upright posture instead of one in which you are hunched over can help to allow your lungs to maximise the space they take up. An additional exercise for this can be to sit on a stable chair, lean back slightly and breathing deeply.

It is also important to be aware of hydration. Getting sufficient water is important to assist in keeping the mucosal lining of the lungs thin which helps the lungs function optimally.

If you smoke, you are putting your overall lung health at risk, so stopping smoking will be one of the best things you can do to assist your lungs. While quitting is a difficult proposition, there is no better time to make decisions that can improve lung health. There are many support programs available to help.

Although the exercises discussed in the article are generally considered safe, it is always wise to discuss any changes you make to your exercise program, including breathing exercises, with your doctor. Lung exercises may not be able to reverse existing damage but they may limit the amount of damage done by respiratory diseases. Improved lung capacity and function may also shorten the time taken to recover from these diseases.


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Article Author
Arthritis National Research Foundation

The Arthritis National Research Foundation's mission is to provide initial research funding to brilliant, investigative scientists with new ideas to cure arthritis and related autoimmune diseases. Writing articles about the patients affected and the science being done to find a cure shows why we need to come together to #CureArthritis!

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