The lungs provide the body with life-giving oxygen on a moment-by-moment basis while expelling carbon dioxide waste along the way. Considering how essential these tasks are, it’s no surprise that the health of the body as a whole suffers when chronic lung problems develop. Lung exercises provide ways to help your lungs become more efficient at managing airflow and oxygen levels. Here are five easy ways to improve your lung health along with a brief overview of how your lungs work.
The Nuts and Bolts of Lung Health – Lung Function vs. Lung Capacity
The lungs have a two-fold job of delivering oxygen to the bloodstream while removing carbon dioxide from the body. Every cell in the body draws oxygen from the blood and deposits carbon dioxide as waste into the bloodstream. For people living with chronic lung diseases, such as pulmonary fibrosis and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), the lungs have difficulty supplying the body with needed amounts of oxygen.
Lung function and lung capacity determine how efficiently the lungs deliver oxygen and get rid of carbon dioxide. Lung capacity indicates how much air your lungs can hold. It also affects how quickly air moves in and out of your lungs. Your level of lung function also determines how well the lungs deliver oxygen and remove carbon dioxide from the bloodstream.
Lung function has to do with how efficiently the body uses the oxygen it receives. Whereas lung capacity can be improved, lung function cannot. This means improving your lung health is about improving your lung capacity. Lung exercises are designed to help the body make better use of available oxygen supplies. Here are a handful of easy exercises you can do to improve your lung health and make breathing easier.
5 Ways to Improve Your Lung Health
1. Diaphragmatic Breathing
Healthy breathing uses the diaphragm, which is a dome-shaped sheet of muscle that sits between the chest and the abdomen. The diaphragm muscle should help the lungs fill with air by moving down and then push air out of the lungs as it moves back up. Commonly known as diaphragmatic or belly breathing, the abdomen rises and falls with each breath.
While the diaphragm is supposed to be the primary breathing muscle, many people unknowingly develop a habit of using muscles in the neck, shoulders and back, which greatly limits the amount of air that enters and leaves the lungs. A 2016 research study appearing in the Journal of Physical Therapy Science set out to observe the effects of diaphragmatic breathing on respiratory function. Using two groups of subjects, one group engaged in feedback breathing exercises while the other practiced diaphragmatic breathing. The results of the study showed marked improvement in lung capacity for the group that practiced diaphragmatic breathing.
In effect, diaphragmatic breathing strengthens the diaphragm muscle and, in turn, helps the lungs work more efficiently. To do this exercise, you want to breathe from your belly. It helps to place one hand on your belly and one hand on your chest as you inhale and exhale. Breathe in through the nose for two seconds and then out through pursed lips for two seconds. As you exhale, press down on your abdomen to make sure you’re engaging your diaphragm muscle.
2. Pursed-Lip Breathing
Chronic lung conditions, such as bronchitis and asthma, often result from inflamed airways that prevent air from circulating through the lungs. When this happens, stale air becomes trapped inside making it difficult for the lungs to absorb new or fresh air (and oxygen). These conditions cause you to feel short of breath much of the time. Pursed-lip breathing forces the airways to stay open longer when you exhale so stale air can be expelled and more fresh air can be absorbed.
Pursed-lip breathing lung exercises are easy to do and can be done anywhere at any time. The exercise involves inhaling, slowly, through the nose and exhaling through pursed lips. The goal is to take twice as long breathing out as breathing in, so if you inhale for five seconds, you’ll want to exhale for 10 seconds.
3. Rib Stretch
The rib stretch does exactly what it says, stretching or expanding the ribs, which helps your lungs take in as much air as possible. This lung exercise requires you to be in a standing, upright position with your hands on your hips. Slowly inhale air until your lungs fill to capacity. Hold your breath for 20 seconds or for however long is comfortable and then exhale slowly. Relax and then repeat three more times. When done on a regular basis, rib stretches help you take more air into your lungs and exhale fully so stale air doesn’t build up in the lungs.
4. Laughing and Singing
Any activity that works the abdominal muscles also works the lungs. Both laughing and singing do just that. Laughing not only increases your lung capacity but also forces stale air out of the lungs so more fresh air can enter. Likewise, singing works the diaphragm muscle, which also helps increase lung capacity.
5. Increase Your Activity Level
Increasing your daily activity level, in general, can go a long way towards improving your lung health. Something as easy as brisk walking or bike riding not only works well as a lung exercise but also improves your heart health and overall mood. A study sponsored by the Canadian Longitudinal Study on Aging demonstrated the benefits of replacing just 30 minutes of sedentary time per day with strenuous or strength-building activities. Study participants had poor respiratory function due to conditions like asthma and COPD. Results from the study showed marked increases in lung capacity, enabling participants to inhale and exhale larger volumes of air on an ongoing basis.
Things to Keep in Mind
While lung exercises work well at improving your overall lung health, if you have a chronic lung disease, it’s always a good idea to consult with your doctor before starting an exercise regimen. Also, exercise almost never produces overnight results so expect to see positive results over time and not all at once. Lastly, it’s important to listen to your body, especially if chronic lung problems are an issue. Always make it a point to exercise at a pace that doesn’t overtax your condition. All-in-all, the more active your lifestyle, the better the outcome.
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Brenda Kimble is a writer and caregiver based in Austin, TX. In her spare time, she enjoys blogging and connecting with others in her field. Outside of work, Brenda loves doing yoga, completing new DIY projects around her home, as well as spending time with her husband and three children.