We often don’t consider the important role our lungs play in keeping us strong and well. It’s not until we experience problems breathing that we take notice. But the truth is, like the rest of our body, our lungs need daily care and attention.
Breathing feeds oxygen to every cell in the body. Without sufficient oxygen, people are more prone to health problems, including respiratory illnesses, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and even heart disease.
But ordinary, everyday breathing isn’t enough to keep the oxygen flowing through the body at peak levels, experts at Rush University Medical Center say.
“Lungs at rest and during most daily activities are only at 50 percent of their capacity,” says Jennifer M. Ryan, PT, MS, DPT, CCS, a certified specialist in cardiovascular and pulmonary physical therapy. “Like the rest of your body, lungs thrive on movement and activity.”
Since regular day-to-day activity doesn’t help you use your lungs to full capacity, you need to challenge the lungs with more intense activity.
“Your lungs need at the very least 20 minutes of consistent, moderately intense movement daily, like a brisk walk,” says Ryan. “Also, to help counteract the build-up of toxins and tar in the lungs caused by environmental pollutants, allergens, dust and cigarette smoke, you need to help your lungs cleanse themselves.”
Among the many things you can do to keep your lungs functioning properly are some simple breathing techniques, according to Keith Roberts, RRT, CPFT, director of respiratory therapy at Rush.
“These techniques can be used for people who are experiencing lung problems related to asthma, emphysema and chronic bronchitis, as well as healthy individuals,” he says.
Diaphragmatic breathing uses the awareness of the diaphragm muscle, which separates the organs in the abdomen from the lungs.
“By concentrating on lowering the diaphragm as you breathe in, you’ll get a much deeper inhale,” says Roberts. “This is the technique that professional singers use to increase their lung capacity.”
Simple deep breathing
Deep breathing can help you get closer to reaching your lungs’ full capacity.
As you slowly inhale, consciously expand your belly with awareness of lowering the diaphragm. Next expand your ribs, allowing the floating ribs to open like wings. Finally, allow the upper chest to expand and lift.
After this, exhale as completely as possible by letting the chest fall, then contracting the ribs and, finally, bring the stomach muscles in and up to lift the diaphragm and expel the last bit of air.
Counting on your breath
You can also increase your lung capacity by increasing the length of your inhalations and exhalations. Start by counting how long a natural breath takes. If it takes to the count of five to inhale it should take to the count of five to exhale. You’ll want them to be of equal length.
Once you’ve discovered the count for your average breath, add one more count to each inhale and exhale until you can comfortably extend the length of time it takes to fill and empty your lungs.
The point is to avoid straining or being uncomfortable. It should be a gradual and easy process.
Making room: Watch your posture
Since the lungs are soft structures, they only take up the room that you make for them.
“You want to occasionally sit tall and reach overhead, to make more room for your lungs,” says Ryan.
“A simple technique for giving your lungs even more room is leaning back slightly in a stable chair, lifting the chest and opening the front of your body as you breathe deeply,” she says.
Getting enough water is as important for the lungs as it is for the rest of the body.
“Staying well hydrated by taking in fluids throughout the day helps keep the mucosal linings in the lungs thin,” Ryan says. “This thinner lining helps the lungs function better.”
A laughing matter
“Laughing is a great exercise to work the abdominal muscles and increase lung capacity,” says Ryan.
“It also clears out your lungs by forcing enough stale air out that it allows fresh air to enter into more areas of the lung.”
“Regular moderately intense activity is great for the lungs and when you increase your daily activity you get three things done at once: healthy lungs, a healthier heart and a better mood,” Ryan says.
Join a breathing club
“If you can’t be active because of lung problems, you can join a breathing club,” says Roberts.
“These are support groups for people with lung and breathing problems. You can work on breathing techniques and get encouragement and information to help keep you healthy and improve your quality of life.”
The American Lung Association offers Better Breathers Clubs throughout Illinois and around the country. Visit the American Lung Association Web site or call (800) LUNG-USA (586-4872) to find one near you.
The doctor will see you now
See your doctor if you experience any of the following symptoms:
- Shortness of breath during simple activities
- Pain when breathing
- Dizziness with a change in activity
- A persistent cough
- Wheezing with exercise
- Cough associated with exercising
- Pain in the airway (the path air follows to get into and out of the lungs)
If you have a history of smoking, talk to your doctor about how often you should have your lungs checked. The good news is that if you stop smoking, you can recover from the damage, and the ongoing check-ups will show your progress.