How does exercise strengthen the lungs?

When you exercise, your heart and lungs spring into action. The lungs bring oxygen into the body, providing energy and removing the carbon dioxide your body produces as waste. And your heart pumps the oxygen to the muscles that are doing the exercise. To cope with this extra demand, your breathing increases from around 15 times a minute when you’re resting, to around 50 times a minute during intense exercise. When your lungs are healthy, you keep a large breathing reserve. Feeling ‘out of breath’ is normal during and after exercise, but if you have reduced lung function, you may feel ‘short of breath’.

As your fitness improves, your body becomes more efficient at getting oxygen into the bloodstream and transporting it to your muscles. This will help you become less ‘short of breath’ during exercise over time. Your muscles will also need less oxygen to move, and in turn, will produce less carbon dioxide. This reduces the amount of air you need to breathe in and out during exercise.

Some exercises can also strengthen your neck and chest muscles, including the diaphragm and muscles between the ribs, which work together to enable you to inhale and exhale. And training will also improve your circulation, which strengthens your heart.

What are the best exercises to increase lung capacity at home?
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If you find it tough to fit regular exercise or sport into your busy routine, doing a 30-minute workout at home could be the answer. Doing five sessions of aerobic exercise per week can help improve lung capacity and overall health. Here are some of the top exercises for lungs which you can do in the comfort of your own home:

  • Treadmill/ elliptical machine: Walking on a treadmill is a low-impact aerobic exercise which burns calories and gets your heart rate up. And using an elliptical machine is a great cardio workout that also introduces resistance training. Cardiovascular training improves lung health, so using a treadmill or elliptical trainer can form an important part of your at-home lung capacity exercises.
  • Step aerobics: Another good way to workout at home, this is an aerobic exercise that involves stepping up and down on a raised platform. There are countless step aerobic videos online, and it can be tailored to be low-impact, perfect for anyone who’s starting to exercise again after injury, or an older person with limited mobility.
  • Yoga: You might not think of yoga as a cardio workout, but it’s actually a great way to support cardiorespiratory fitness. This can be an ideal workout for older people, as it puts less stress on the joints, and it can help with range of motion in daily life.
  • Pilates: If yoga isn’t your thing, then Pilates could be a good alternative. Pilates is particularly beneficial for supporting core strength and joint flexibility. And it has been found to help maintain heart and lung function, particularly in individuals who have suffered conditions that can affect cardio health.
  • Tai Chi: This Chinese martial art provides aerobic exercise, along with teaching you self-defence techniques. You can find a local club to learn the basics and practise at home, or you can find some simple tai chi movements online. Using a full range of fluid motion, breathing exercises for your lungs, coordination, focus and relaxation techniques, this aerobic exercise has been used for mind-body health for thousands of years.

If you suffer from shortness of breath while exercising, interval training may be a better alternative to steady exercise. Interval training involves alternating between short periods of more intense and less intense exercise. For example, you could try walking at a very fast pace for one minute, then walking more slowly for two minutes, in a cycle. Interval training gives the lungs time to recover before challenging them again.

Can breathing exercises increase lung capacity?
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Over time, our lung capacity and lung function decrease. This can lead to shortness of breath, or difficulty in breathing in more serious cases. You should also always consult your doctor if you’re feeling shortness of breath too often. But there are some breathing exercises to strengthen lungs which you can do at home to help maintain and increase lung capacity, making it easier to keep your lungs healthy and get your body the oxygen it needs.

Diaphragmatic breathing

Also known as ‘belly breathing’, this helps to strengthen the diaphragm, which does most of the work when it comes to breathing. This technique is particularly beneficial to people with COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease), a group of lung conditions that make it difficult to empty air out of the lungs because the airways have become narrowed. If you have COPD, ask your doctor to show you how to get the most out of this exercise.

Lie down with your shoulders relaxed, and place one hand on your belly and one on your chest. Inhale through your nose for two seconds, and feel the air move into your abdomen (your stomach should expand more than your chest). Then breathe out for two seconds through pursed lips while pressing lightly on your abdomen, and repeat.

Pursed-lips breathing

This exercise reduces the number of breaths you take and keeps your airways open longer. More air is able to flow in and out of your lungs, allowing you to be more physically active. This breathing exercise is often easier for beginners than diaphragmatic breathing as it’s easy to practise anytime, anywhere (rather than needing to lie down, as with diaphragmatic breathing).

Inhale slowly through your nose and purse your lips, as if you’re about to blow on something. Breathe out as slowly as possible through pursed lips (this should take at least twice as long as it did to breathe in). Repeat.

What sports help increase lung capacity?
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It’s recommended that we get at least 30-minutes of moderate exercise, five days a week. But that doesn’t mean you need to get yourself down to the local gym. It can be as simple as some brisk walking around the park or a little cycle along the river. Even gardening and housework can count if it gets you moving enough to get your heart rate up.

Both aerobic exercises and muscle-strengthening activities can help improve lung health. Aerobic exercises like running, rowing, and swimming get your heart and lungs working. And muscle-strengthening activities like Pilates or weight-lifting build core strength, which improves your posture and tones your breathing muscles.

Let’s take a look in a little more detail at some of the sports which offer the best exercise for lungs:

  • Swimming: Breathing exercises associated with swimming, like holding your breath, may help you expand your lung capacity and help you gain control over your breathing.
  • Discover more Tips to Increase Lung Capacity While Swimming.
  • Rowing: This low-impact exercise is great for your heart and lungs. It trains your heart to pump blood faster, and distributes oxygen throughout the body more efficiently. Rowing also requires you to breathe quickly and deeply, improving lung power and capacity.
  • Basketball: When conditioning for basketball, players need aerobic (endurance) and anaerobic (short burst activities) training. Running up and down the court gets your lungs working and improves cardiovascular health.
  • New to basketball? Find out what you need to know about getting started with the basics of basketball.
  • Water polo: Players spend a lot of time in the water, so they focus a lot on their breathing to condition their respiratory system. Using breathing resistance exercises help strengthen the diaphragm and intercostal muscles which increase lung capacity.
  • Running: Helps improve muscular strength which means your muscles need less oxygen to function. This puts less stress onto your lungs. Increasing the endurance capacity of your respiratory muscles also allows deeper, fuller and more efficient breaths when you run. Take a look at our handy guide with essential tips for running for beginners.

Studies have also shown that higher vitamin D levels are associated with better lung function. So getting outside and exercising during the summer months is a good way to get the vitamin D you need to stay healthy. In the winter months, it might be worth investing in vitamin D supplements if you’re not already getting enough naturally in your diet from foods such as oily fish, eggs, and red meat.

Tips for keeping your lungs healthy

Working to keep your lungs healthy is much more efficient than trying to repair them. Prevention is the best medicine, so here are some tips to help keep your lungs healthy:

  • Avoid smoking (in case you are a smoker). And try to avoid environmental irritants such as pollution wherever possible. The NHS website has tips and resources that can help you to stop smoking.
  • Exercise regularly to increase lung capacity, and use breathing techniques to strengthen your diaphragm.
  • Make sure you’re getting enough vitamin D in your diet, through supplements or outdoor exercise.
  • Improve the quality of the air in your home through indoor air filters, and reduce pollutants like dust, mould and artificial fragrances.
  • If you’re offered the flu vaccine, take it! Flu puts extra strain on your lungs and respiratory failure happens more often during or immediately after an acute inflammatory illness, such as flu. Preventing flu in the first place is the best option.

Feeling a little out of breath during and after exercise is normal, but if you feel like there’s more going on and you have developed a cough, shortness or breath or fatigue, you should consult a doctor as soon as possible. They may ask you to breathe into a device that measures the amount of air in your lungs and how fast you can breathe out. This will give your doctor an indication as to what might be going on.

How can I help my lungs recover after COVID-19?

If you’re unlucky enough to have contracted COVID-19, you may be suffering from lung damage or other complications. Even after the disease has passed, lung injury may result in breathing difficulties that could take months to improve.

There are three main factors that affect the lung damage risk in COVID-19 infections and how likely someone is to recover and regain lung function:

  • Disease severity: Whether a person has a mild case of the coronavirus infection, or a severe one. Milder cases are less likely to cause lasting scars in the lung tissue.
  • Health conditions: If someone has existing health problems, such as COPD or heart disease, that could raise the risk of severe disease. Older people are also more vulnerable.
  • Treatment: A patient’s recovery and long-term lung health is going to depend on what kind of care they receive, and how quickly.

After a serious case of COVID-19, a patient’s lungs can recover, but it may take time. You have to remember that your lungs would have suffered the initial injury, and then scarring. Over time, the tissue heals, but it can take several months or even up to a year for a person’s lung function to return to pre-COVID-19 levels.

Practising good breathing while you are resting is essential for recovery. After getting coronavirus your breathing may have got faster, which is a normal response, but it may not have returned to its normal rate and pattern. If you’re worried your breathing is not improving, or seems to be getting worse, you should contact your GP.