Exercising, avoiding pollutant exposure, controlling weight, and other strategies may help you breathe easier.
You may not know it, but your lungs — like many of your organs — have some backup power to get you through situations that stress your health. This excess capacity, called physiological reserve, helps your lungs weather infection and chronic disease.
Lung reserve is robust when we’re young, but it diminishes over time as part of the normal aging process. Smoking or long-term lung diseases such as asthma, chronic bronchitis, or emphysema can accelerate that decline. Diminished reserve makes us more vulnerable to a new or sudden lung problem. “If you get a severe infection and start with lower lung function compared to when you were younger, you have less reserve capacity and you won’t tolerate the infection as well,” says Dr. Richard Schwartzstein, chief of the Pulmonary, Critical Care, and Sleep Medicine Division at Harvard-affiliated Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center.
To fight back, take steps to help increase or sustain your lung reserve and maximize lung health. Here are six strategies that might help.
Moderate-intensity exercise like brisk walking gets your heart and lungs pumping, causing you to take deep breaths. Those deep breaths open up all areas of the lungs and assist in clearing out accumulated lung secretions (mucus). “The areas where secretions collect are good places for inhaled viruses or bacteria to settle, reproduce, and grow,” Dr. Schwartzstein explains, “so the more secretions you can eliminate, the better it is for the lungs.”
2. Avoid smoke and pollution exposure
When you inhale toxins, the lungs secrete mucus, which traps the toxins. Coughing up the mucus removes toxins from the lungs. But the more toxins you’re exposed to — maybe from fires, secondhand tobacco smoke, or pollution — the more mucus you’ll produce, which can make it harder to breathe.
If you aren’t able to avoid smoke or pollution exposure, Dr. Schwartzstein recommends wearing a face mask. The mask can also be effective if you have asthma or allergies that can trigger spasms of the airway, especially if you’re exposed to cold air. “Masks are helpful because you breathe warmer, humidified air,” Dr. Schwartzstein says. “Cold air can provoke airway spasms, particularly in people with asthma.”
3. Stop smoking
There is no safe amount of smoking. Smoking even a little makes you vulnerable to infection and can lead to lung cancer. “We’re finding that even small amounts of smoking can damage the lungs in a variety of ways. It causes lung irritation, inflammation, and increased mucus secretion,” Dr. Schwartzstein says.
4. Take deep breaths
Deep breathing helps you expand all regions of the lungs and eliminate secretions. You can do a workout that incorporates deep breathing (such as yoga), or just do a deep breathing exercise. A nice bonus: deep breathing helps reduce your heart rate and blood pressure. “Spend 30 minutes a day doing deep breathing, spaced out throughout the day,” Dr. Schwartzstein suggests.
An easy deep breathing exercise: Sit or lie down in a comfortable spot. Breathe in slowly and deeply through your nose, keeping your shoulders still and allowing your tummy to expand outward. Now exhale through your nose or mouth and relax your belly. Repeat for five minutes. It’s okay to include a few shallow breaths as needed until you find your rhythm.
5. Change your position
Changing your position at least once per hour is good for your lungs. “Get out of a chair and change your position — do some deep knee bends, or bend over and do some deep breathing. That will get air circulating to all regions of the lungs to clear out secretions,” Dr. Schwartzstein says.
6. Control your weight
Being overweight puts a strain on the muscles that move the lungs, particularly the diaphragm, which expands the lungs when it moves down into your abdomen. “In people with a large abdomen, the downward motion of the diaphragm is impaired, so the lungs don’t expand as much,” Dr. Schwartzstein notes. Losing weight will reduce the work of breathing.
What about COVID-19?
You may wonder if improving lung health would give you more ability to cope with COVID-19 if you happen to get it. “We don’t have any evidence yet about specific benefits for COVID,” Dr. Schwartzstein says, “but anything you can do to keep your lungs functioning at their best level should improve your chances of dealing with a respiratory infection like COVID.”
Image: © jacoblund/Getty Images
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