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Silhouette of a man clutching his chest, with the background image of a tree to signify his lungs.

Tips and exercises for healthy lungs

With the threat of COVID-19, health and fitness are increasingly on our minds. In our drive to become healthier, however, we don't always think about our lungs. It's not until the simplest of exercises leave us breathless that we're reminded how critical they are. 

Every activity in your body requires oxygen, and it is your lungs that transport this oxygen around your body. They absorb the oxygen from the air that you breathe, and they remove the carbon dioxide (the waste gas that your body produces when it works) when you breathe out.

Just as your heart, muscles and joints age over time, so do your lungs. They become less flexible and lose their strength, which can make breathing difficult. Just as we might train our hamstrings and calves to improve our ability to power-walk over hills, we can also tone the muscles used for breathing and improve our lung capacity.

By adopting the healthy habits detailed below, you will not only maintain the health of your lungs, but improve it, too. Within just a few days you and your lungs should feel a noticeable difference.

No smoking

Smoking is linked to most lung diseases and, simply put, smoking will make those diseases more severe. People who smoke are five times more likely to get flu and twice as likely to get pneumonia.

Every time you smoke a cigarette, thousands of chemicals are inhaled into the lungs, including nicotine, carbon monoxide, and tar. These toxins damage your lungs. They increase mucus, make it more difficult for your lungs to clean themselves, and irritate and inflame tissues. Gradually, your airways narrow, making it more difficult to breathe.

So, don't smoke or stop smoking now to maintain lung health.

Breathing exercises

Pushing Out is an amazing breathing exercise that can be practised daily to improve lung health.

  1. Stand in an upright posture, and relax your knees so they are slightly bent.
  2. Slowly bend at the waist, rolling forward, pushing out all the air from your lungs.
  3. Slowly return to the standing position, breathing in air so your lungs are filled to their maximum capacity.
  4. Standing tall and with full lungs, hold your breath for 20 seconds (or for as long as you can).
  5. While holding your breath, gently lift your arms above your head.
  6. Once you have finished counting, slowly return your arms to your sides and exhale through the mouth, coming back to a relaxed starting position.
  7. Repeat this exercise 4 times a day.

Cardio exercise

Just as exercise keeps your body in shape, it keeps your lungs in shape too. The more you exercise, the greater your lung capacity and the more efficient the lungs become.

During exercise, your heart beats faster and your lungs work harder, in turn enhancing their capacity. When you exercise your body needs more oxygen to fuel your muscles. Your lungs increase their activity to deliver that oxygen, while expelling additional carbon dioxide.

There are many cardio exercises you can do that do not require any equipment, and can be done no matter what your current fitness level. If you are new to exercise or haven't trained in years, aim to walk briskly  for 30 minutes each day (this can even be split into 3 x 10-minute sessions to start with). Other exercises that increase lung capacity include running, jogging and swimming. Even a gym workout for 30 minutes, after which you feel puffed out, will achieve a beneficial effect.

Water-based exercises

Exercising in water has huge benefits for lung capacity. The water acts as a form of resistance, so your body has to work harder. Swimming, walking in water, stretching or even light resistance exercises will all do the trick. Ensure your shoulders are under the water (so you are neck-deep) and take quick breaths (longer breaths are more difficult due to the water compressing the body.)

As a Register of Exercise Professionals-accredited training provider, Nicola consults for leading health and fitness brands and regularly contributes to press publications.

Find out more about Nicola Addison, or read more about Healthspan's health experts.