The past year and a half has been full of many lessons, perhaps none more important than being keenly aware about the air we breathe and how we take care of our body. We spend a lot of time talking about air quality in our homes, ways to boost our immunity, or the best ways to sanitize and kill germs. We don't often look inward to our lungs, the main organ in our respiratory function, along with the surrounding organs and muscles. As we head into flu season (and with COVID-19 still very present), it's important to do all we can to stay healthy—and that includes our lung health. The good news is that you may already be doing some of these things, as many have other health benefits as well. Here are five ways to keep your lungs strong and healthy at all times.
And of course, practice good hand washing, avoid those who are sick, and get vaccinated for COVID-19, the flu, and pneumonia (if of age) for further protection.
Exercise is key to so many pieces of our health, and it's equally as important to the strength of our lungs. "Our lungs are a pump," says Albert Rizzo, MD, FACP, chief medical officer of the American Lung Association. "[They're] dependent on the muscles in the chest cave. To keep those lungs pumping strong we need to keep our muscles in shape."
Cardiovascular exercise is the best way to do that and requires no more than 20 to 30 minutes a day (or some equivalent spread out through the week). "You want to create an aerobic demand," says personal trainer Gunnar Peterson, CSCS, CPT. "This can be incline walking or even adding a few aerobic moves to your strength [training]."
But don't fret if 20 to 30 minutes a day sounds overwhelming. "Give yourself credit for what you can do," Peterson says. "Start slowly and incrementally." Even if that means five minutes between conference calls to walk around the block—it doesn't have to be all at once. Walking is a great form of cardiovascular exercise, "helping to get to those deeper portions of our lungs," Dr. Rizzo says.
For those with asthma, Peterson has created a small circuit on LungZone (a website with targeted information for those with asthma) that will help them get moving and strengthen those lungs.
Up your vitamin D.
We know that Vitamin D is important for the health of our bones, but it's also important for the health of our lungs. A 2011 study found that Vitamin D deficiency can cause deficits in lung function and even alter lung structure. If you're deficient you can get vitamin D through foods like fatty fish, egg yolk, cheese, or Vitamin D supplements, if necessary (check in with your doctor before adding any supplements into the mix). This is especially important if you have something impairing your lungs like chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) or asthma.
Work on breathing.
Stress can wreak havoc on our bodies, and that includes our respiratory system. Deep breathing is beneficial for stress reduction, and diaphragmatic breathing and pursed-lip breathing can help increase lung capacity, especially after recovering from a respiratory infection like COVID-19 or something more chronic.
"With a focus on being intentional with our breathing—inhaling and exhaling for a count of four, or belly breathing—you regain a sense of peace and reduce feelings of stress and anxiety," says Kelley Green, meditation instructor and mindset coach. "In stressful situations we sometimes forget to breathe." Here are five different types of breathing exercises to try to help calm your nervous system and exercise your lungs.
Get enough sleep.
The jury is still out on exactly why sleep is good for our lungs, but lack of sleep can have a negative impact on our overall immune system. "We don't know the exact mechanisms behind it, but we do know that sleep is so important to many health issues including the repair of muscles," says Dr. Rizzo. With a decreased immune system, we make ourselves more vulnerable to respiratory infections.
Avoid unhealthy habits.
The final part of keeping those lungs strong and healthy is avoiding things that are just plain bad for them. Smoking cigarettes and vaping are no-nos, of course, but also be mindful of your exposure to fireplaces and wood burning stoves, which Dr. Rizzo says can lead to irritation in the airways. And when you do exercise, avoid places with poor air quality or massive crowds where you don't have space to, well, breathe.