Remember when you were younger and staying healthy seemed so easy?
Almost all of us can remember a time when we could eat whatever we wanted, move our bodies with ease, and appear youthful without even trying.
As we get older, maintaining our health requires work and intentionality. Many of us engage in practices such as yoga or stretches to keep our joints and muscles in good shape. We’re careful about what we eat and we use creams and lotions to keep our skin healthy.
But when was the last time you thought about the health of your lungs?
If you haven’t considered your lungs, this might be the time to start. Just like other parts of your body, lungs lose strength and elasticity as you age. Although this change is not as evident as other changes in your body, your aging lungs can increase your risk for breathing-related illnesses like COPD and asthma.
Just like yoga or healthy eating, there are some specific, intentional practices to keep your lungs healthy and youthful. This will not only diminish your risk for disease, but also make you feel better. After all, there’s nothing like a few good deep breaths to make your entire body feel strong and healthy.
Here are seven steps to maintain lung health.
1. Practice Your Breathing
Ever gone to physical therapy or worked with a personal trainer? If so, you know that they give you specific exercises to do to keep your muscles and joints healthy and strong.
As is the case with the rest of your body, the right breathing exercises are essential to keep your lungs functioning in top form.
The truth is, you may be experiencing diminished lung capacity without even being aware of it. Adding breathing exercises to your daily routine can help you gradually build that lung capacity up again.
It’s especially important to practice diaphragmatic breathing. This kind of breathing helps you intentionally use your diaphragm to slow your breathing and decrease your need for oxygen.
To do this, try lying flat on your back with your head and knees supported. Then, with one hand below your rib cage and the other on your chest, breathe in slowly through your nose and out through pursed lips. The hand on your chest should rise very little if at all as you practice breathing deeply from your diaphragm.
If you make this exercise a daily practice, you will find that diaphragmatic breathing comes more naturally.
2. Avoid or Stop Smoking
Well, this should come as no surprise to anyone. By now, most of us are aware that smoking puts you at increased risk for emphysema, heart disease and various kinds of cancer.
We also know that smoking is the leading cause of COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease), a progressive disease which dramatically diminishes your lung capacity over time.
Smoking narrows your airways so that breathing becomes more difficult. In addition, it causes inflammation and swelling in your lungs, eventually leading to chronic bronchitis.
Finally, many years of smoking actually destroy lung tissue.
For all these reasons, the decision to quit smoking may seem like a no-brainer. Unfortunately, for those whose smoking has become a lifelong habit, this is easier said than done.
But it is possible to quit by identifying your triggers and coming up with a solid plan.
And needless to say, if you are not a smoker…don’t start!
Your lungs (and the rest of your body) will thank you.
3. Avoid Air Pollution
We have known for years that air pollution impedes healthy lung function. Back in 1966, the city of Atlanta, Georgia aimed to reduce pollution by switching the fuel for city buses from diesel to natural gas. The result? Asthma attacks in children were reduced by a whopping 44%.
Over time, air pollutants build up in the lungs, making it harder to breathe. This is true even for people with otherwise healthy lungs. For someone with asthma or COPD, pollution can cause excessive coughing, wheezing and a host of cardiovascular problems.
It can be hard to avoid air pollution if you live in a big city. But you can take steps to protect yourself by exercising indoors and spending less time travelling by car. Try to carpool, bike, walk or take public transportation. If possible, living a distance away from major highways can also minimize your exposure.
You can do your part to reduce air pollution by using care when refueling your vehicle, too. Carefully follow your vehicle’s instructions for vapor recovery. Use caution to avoid spilling gasoline, and always tighten your gas cap securely.
4. Protect Yourself From Respiratory Infections
A cold may seem harmless. But colds and viruses can quickly escalate, eventually causing infections that have lasting effects.
Chest colds often lead to acute bronchitis, a condition in which your airways become swollen and inflamed, so it’s hard to breathe. A problem that is easily resolved in children and young people can be much more serious for someone whose lungs are aging.
Your lungs will be much healthier if you are able to avoid succumbing to the cold and flu season.
To avoid illness and infection, try to stay away from crowds if you can. Wash your hands frequently with soap and water. Attend to your oral hygiene by brushing your teeth at least twice daily and visiting the dentist regularly. If you do get sick, protect others by staying home. Keep your distance, even from loved ones who share their home with you.
It’s also important to avoid touching your face, as this can spread droplets from your hands to your mouth and nose, increasing your risk for illness. And whatever you do, don’t share cups or utensils with others.
Another way to prevent infectious illnesses is by getting the flu vaccine and possibly the pneumonia vaccine too.
5. Exercise Regularly
Regular exercise is your best defence against any health concern, whether it’s diminished lung capacity, heart disease or just a low mood.
Every part of your body is working harder during moderate exercise…including your lungs. This work makes your muscles, heart and lungs stronger and more efficient. Your body develops its capacity to get needed oxygen to your bloodstream. Over time, you will start to notice that you are less likely to get winded and out of breath when exercising.
In addition, some kinds of exercise strengthen your neck and chest muscles, making it easier to breathe.
To maintain optimum lung health, it is recommended that adults engage in at least thirty minutes of moderate physical exercise five times a week.
For best results, try a mix of aerobic and strength-building exercises. Running, walking or jumping rope are great ways to work your heart and lungs, making them stronger. By lifting weights or doing Pilates, you can improve your posture, which in turn builds lung capacity.
6. Maintain Good Posture
It’s very easy to fall into bad habits where our posture is concerned. Slouching or hunching over your phone or computer may feel natural, but over time these habits are causing fatigue, back pain and yes, weaker lungs.
Because your lungs are made of soft tissue, they can shove themselves into any small space you give them. But such cramped conditions make it hard for them to function effectively. It also weakens the muscles in your upper body, making breathing harder.
So do yourself (and your lungs) a favor by occasionally indulging in a nice big stretch, giving your lungs room to spread out.
When sitting, try leaning back slightly, lifting the chest as you breathe deeply.
There are a number of other exercises you can do to loosen your muscles and become more aware of your body, helping you get into better posture habits.
Besides healthier lungs, you will also reap the benefits of reduced wear on your joints and muscles, lessening your risk for chronic pain.
7. Minimize Indoor Pollutants
Believe it or not, some of the biggest dangers to your lungs are lurking in the air within your home.
Dust mites may be hiding in your carpets or upholstery, triggering asthma and allergic reactions. Pet dander can also inhibit lung function over time. And secondhand smoke lingers in the air making it harder for everyone to breathe.
There are a number of steps you can take to minimize pollution in your home. If you have carpet, consider getting rid of it. Test your home for radon. Insist that guests and family members remove their shoes before entering your home. And do not allow smoking in the house.
Maintain cleanly habits, dusting and vacuuming regularly and giving all bedding a hot-water wash at least once a week. Also, you can wear a mask to protect against pollutants as well.
And while you can’t see your lungs as you do your skin or your muscles, you can bet they will reward you with easier breathing and better overall health. And that’s a win-win.
Thank you so much for reading and as always, breathe easy my friend.
The following are the sources that were used while doing research for this article:
- Story, Colleen. “How Growing Older Impacts Lung Health.” Healthline, 18 Sept. 2017, www.healthline.com/health/understanding-idiopathic-pulmonary-fibrosis/ways-growing-older-impacts-lung-health.
- Kassel, Gabrielle. “The Every Woman’s Guide to Perfect Posture in 30 Days.” Healthline, 22 Aug. 2018, www.healthline.com/health/guide-to-better-posture-exercises#first-week.
- “Breathing Exercises.” American Lung Association, 27 May 2020, www.lung.org/lung-health-diseases/wellness/breathing-exercises.
- “Exercise and Lung Health.” American Lung Association, 13 July 2020, www.lung.org/lung-health-diseases/wellness/exercise-and-lung-health.
- “Indoor Air Pollutants and Health.” American Lung Association, 14 Mar. 2020, www.lung.org/clean-air/at-home/indoor-air-pollutants.
- “Diaphragmatic Breathing Exercises & Techniques.” Cleveland Clinic, 14 Sept. 2018, my.clevelandclinic.org/health/articles/9445-diaphragmatic-breathing.
- “Why Should I Quit Smoking?” Cleveland Clinic, 17 July 2019, my.clevelandclinic.org/health/articles/11870-why-should-i-quit-smoking.
- “COPD | NHLBI, NIH.” National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, 9 June 2020, www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health-topics/copd.
- Hendrick, Bill. “Outdoor Pollution and Lung Function Effects.” WebMD, 4 Aug. 2009, www.webmd.com/lung/features/outdoor-pollution-and-lung-function-effects#1.
- “Actions You Can Take to Reduce Air Pollution | Ground-Level Ozone | New England | US EPA.” United States Environmental Protection Agency, www3.epa.gov/region1/airquality/reducepollution.html. Accessed 15 Sept. 2020.
- “Tips for Keeping Your Lungs Healthy.” Rush University Medical Center, www.rush.edu/health-wellness/discover-health/8-tips-healthy-lungs. Accessed 15 Sept. 2020.