Lungs are one of those parts of our body that we don’t often think about, but they are also one of the most important to keep healthy. Your body’s natural defense system helps to keep dirt and germs out of the lungs and protect them from daily risks, but you also need to play a role in keeping your lungs in tip-top shape, so they continue to help your body function.
Easy Steps to Protect Your Lungs
To keep your lungs healthy, there are simple steps you can practice each day, including:
Avoiding exposure to secondhand smoke and chemicals
Following up with your doctor for regular check-ups
Minimizing exposure to outdoor air pollution
Quitting smoking or not smoking
Exercise is perhaps one of the most important ways to keep your lungs healthy. According to the American Lung Association, when you exercise, your heart and lungs work harder to supply the additional oxygen your muscles demand. So just like exercise makes your muscles stronger, it also helps your lungs to get stronger.
Physical Exercise and Lung Health
Regular physical activity is one of the most important things you can do for your body and your health — including your lung health. In comparison to someone who doesn’t exercise, says the Lung Health Institute, “an exerciser typically has a larger blood volume and a better ability to extract oxygen from the lungs and blood.”
When we say “exercise,” that is typically in alignment with national guidelines, recommending that all adults get at least 30 minutes of moderate physical activity five days per week. This can be as moderate as walking briskly, going for a bike ride, or even more vigorous housecleaning.
Aerobic activities, like running or jumping rope, help exercise your lungs, so they function more efficiently. This is compared to muscle-strengthening activities, like lifting weights or doing Pilates, which improve your posture and breathing muscles.
Though exercise may leave you feeling like you’re out of breath, depending on the intensity, this doesn’t mean you’re short of breath. If you have reduced lung function, you use a large portion of your breathing reserve, which may feel uncomfortable but generally is not dangerous, according to the Lung Health Institute. While it may be tempting to skip physical activity, becoming less fit will ultimately make daily chores, like weeding or walking up the stairs, even harder.
“If you’re not sure about becoming active or boosting your level of physical activity because you’re afraid of getting hurt,” the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) explains, “the good news is that moderate-intensity aerobic activity, such as brisk walking, is generally safe for most people.”
Live a Longer, Healthier Life
Aside from the benefits to your lungs, exercise can “reduce your risk of dying early from leading causes of death, like heart disease and some cancers,” according to the CDC. The CDC backs this statement by explaining that people who are physically active for about 150 minutes weekly have a 33% lower risk of all-cause mortality than those who are physically inactive.
As you start to age, your bones, joints and muscles need extra protection so they can continue to keep you moving. Aerobic, muscle-strengthening and bone-strengthening activities can slow the loss of bone density that may naturally come with age.
There’s also evidence to support 150 minutes of weekly exercise putting you at a lower risk for heart disease and stroke. With more regular physical activity, you can also lower your blood pressure and improve your cholesterol levels, says the CDC.
How Much is Too Much Exercise?
Always talk to your doctor before you start or modify your exercise routine. This is especially important if you have an underlying health condition. And whether you feel perfectly healthy or not, there is such thing as over-exercising. If you experience any of the following symptoms, the Lung Health Institute recommends stopping right away and resting until you feel comfortable:
Pressure or pain in your chest, arm, neck, jaw or shoulder
Rapid or irregular heartbeat
Severe shortness of breath
Breathing exercises, like some types of physical exercise, can help your lungs to work more efficiently. When you have healthy lungs, says the American Lung Association, “You breathe in and out with your diaphragm doing about 80% of the work to fill your lungs with a mixture of oxygen and other gases, and then to send the waste gas out.” Over time, as we age and especially for those living with asthma and COPD, lungs don’t quite function as effectively, so air gets trapped.
Your body starts to use other muscles in the neck, back and chest for breathing if you have less room for the diaphragm to contract and bring in fresh oxygen, the American Lung Association explains, leading to “lower oxygen levels and less reserve for exercise and activity.”
This may sound alarming, but the good news is that regular breathing exercises can help increase oxygen levels and help your organs get back to working more efficiently.
Belly breathing is sometimes also called diaphragmic breathing. It helps retrain the diaphragm to work better, rather than having to rely on the neck, shoulders and back muscles to breathe. To practice belly breathing:
Put a hand on your chest and place the other hand on your stomach while sitting or lying down
Breathe in through your nose for two seconds, feeling your stomach move out
Purse your lips and exhale slowly through your mouth, gently putting pressure on your stomach
Repeat for 5–10 minutes
Pursed Lip Breathing
This type of breathing exercise has been shown to reduce how hard you have to work to breathe, reducing shortness of breath, and helps to release air trapped in the lungs. To practice pursed lip breathing:
Close your mouth, take a deep breath in and inhale, counting to two
Purse your lips, as if you’re starting to whistle
Breathe out slowly while counting to four, with your lips still pursed
Repeat 4–5 times throughout the day
Consult a Physician
As with all new types of physical activity, talk to your primary care physician to discuss an exercise and wellness routine that’s best for you. If you’re interested in connecting with an AdventHealth physician, click here to find care near you.