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Improving Lung Health With Exercise

John Bankston John Bankston May 27, 2021
Medically reviewed by Susan Kerrigan, MD and Marianne Madsen
Additions/comments by Pulmonologist Kelly Fan, MD

You’re probably not shocked to learn that lung capacity diminishes as we age. What doesn’t, right? Your lungs are done developing by the time you are 25. By age 65, you could have lost an entire liter of lung capacity compared to 40 years before. Yet this decline isn’t inevitable. No matter your age or physical condition, your choices make a huge difference. Inhaling smoke or toxic fumes will damage your lungs. On the other hand, improving lung health with exercise is a great way to turn back the clock.

 

Breathing Easier

 

Walking is a great way to consistently burn calories. It’s even a component of the “super hero” program that helped get actors like Tobey Maguire and Chris Pratt ready for their Marvel movie debuts. Yet walking, in and of itself, won’t make a big difference to lung health. Like your muscles, lungs grow stronger from exertion. Whenever you are active, your heart and lungs work in tandem to provide the extra oxygen your muscles need. This means you can “build up” your body and your lungs. Plus, the more you exercise, the more efficient your body becomes at utilizing oxygen. That means as you develop a cardio fitness routine, you’ll experience shortness of breath far less frequently. 

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COPD - Definition

COPD - Definition

Up your walking game. Add some hills or stairs to your stroll. If your office building has a stairway, make use of it. Adding a few flights a day will add to your lung capacity. Jogging or cycling can also improve your lung health. One of the best ways to improve your lungs (and your overall fitness) is swimming. One study concluded that elite swimmers had better lung capacity than elite football players. A low-impact exercise, doing laps in a pool won’t put stress on your knees. If you’re overweight, the water is very supportive. One caveat is that people suffering from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) may find the chlorine in swimming pools to be an irritant that affects their breathing. 

 

Other Options

 

Although yoga isn’t a cardiovascular exercise, its focus on breathing can help “train” your lungs. Remember, this pair of organs works by extracting oxygen from the air we inhale and sending it to your blood. Carbon dioxide makes the return trip––traveling from our blood to our lungs before being exhaled. Yoga’s focus on deep, sustaining breaths can improve lung health. So can breathing exercises.

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COPD - Chronic Condition

COPD - Chronic Condition

When we jog a block or two for the first time, we are intimately aware of our lungs. Yet resistance exercises like weight training can also improve lung health. During the positive motion–when a weight is lifted–we exhale. On the negative motion–when it is lowered–we inhale. These actions help improve lung capacity. So does building muscle in your chest, back, and shoulders. Bench and shoulder presses along with deadlifts will not only develop these areas but improve your resting posture. Standing up straight rather than hunching over makes it much easier to take deep, cleansing breaths. If you don’t have access to weights, consider trying push-ups or planks. 

 

Along with exercise, keep in mind that what we eat also affects our lung capacity. The brittle bones and osteoporosis suffered by some older adults means their ribcage is smaller and less flexible. That makes it a challenge for their chest to expand completely––and that can reduce lung capacity. Regular consumption of calcium either in dairy products or supplements can prevent this condition. Eating apples and tomatoes along with drinking herbal tea was shown to reduce the decline in lung function among ex-smokers, according to one study. The best part of regular exercise is that it doesn’t just improve your lung health. It can improve your mental health as well.

Kelly Fan, MD

Regular exercise is the cornerstone of management for patients with chronic lung disease. I work closely to create an individualized and sustainable exercise regimen for each of my patients.
Doctor Profile

John Bankston

Author

John Bankston is a published author of over 150 nonfiction books for children and young adults including biographies of Jonas Salk, Gerhard Domak, and Frederick Banting.

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