Since COVID-19 reared its ugly head months ago, scientists and medical experts have been working hard to determine the factors that predispose people to this new and sometimes deadly virus.
From obesity and diabetes to high blood pressure, we’ve covered many of these suspected risk factors in this newsletter. We’ve also offered the latest findings on ways you can manage your possible risk factors with simple lifestyle tweaks.
Today, I want to help you strengthen the organs that COVID-19 appears to attack the hardest. I’m talking about the lungs.
As COVID-19 is largely a respiratory illness, it’s wise to brush up on ways to improve lung health as a way to avoid infection.
You see, your lungs, just like any other part of your body, age with time. As the years march on, your lungs may become less flexible and lose strength. This makes it more difficult to breathe.
Here are some tips that will help strengthen your lungs, keep them working optimally and prepare you for whatever comes your way, even COVID-19.
This one may seem like a no-brainer, but there’s really more to it than you may suspect. When discussing lung health, medical experts point to two functions.
The first is lung capacity, which is the amount the lungs can fully expand. The second is lung function, which is how well you process oxygen and distribute it to the rest of the body. You’re born with a certain lung capacity, but lung function can be altered.
“Your lungs grow from birth until about age 25, and then they plateau for a decade,” says physician Bruce Levy, chief of the Division of Pulmonary and Critical Care Medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. “After that, there’s an aging process where we lose function gradually over time.”1
He notes that a sedentary lifestyle can also cause you to lose lung function, since it results in a loss of muscle tone and endurance, both of which can be reflected by reduced breathing capacity.
However, when you exercise, your heart beats faster and your lungs work harder … and that’s good! Your muscles need more oxygen, so the lungs need to step up their activity, delivering that oxygen while eliminating extra carbon dioxide.
And – ta-da! — the more you exercise, the better your lungs function. According to a study, while you exercise your breathing increases from about 15 times a minute to about 40 to 60 times a minute. That’s why it’s wise to do regular exercise that gets you breathing hard. But, it’s important to start gradually, and not overdo it at first.2
Many people think getting fit is all about maintaining a healthy heart, losing weight and reducing the risk of illnesses such as diabetes. But now, more than ever, we need exercise because it helps keep lungs healthy.
“If someone were to get a severe case [of COVID-19], God forbid, having that strength as a reserve could really help,” says Dr. Levy.
Reduce Exposure to Pollutants
As you age, your lungs lose some of their resistance to toxins, which in turn makes you more vulnerable to infections and disease. At home, avoid dust, mold and try to use natural cleaning products when possible. Also, make sure you have good ventilation methods throughout your home.
Make your home a smoke-free zone and avoid being around those who smoke. There’s also evidence that synthetic air fresheners and candles can expose you to chemicals like formaldehyde and benzene.3 Instead, opt for natural essential oils to scent the air.
It’s also a good idea to exercise away from heavy traffic so you’re not inhaling the toxic exhaust, which defeats the lung health benefits. (Besides that, it’s a lot more pleasant.)
This is an area that many of us could improve upon.
Many folks are used to taking shallow breaths from the chest area. Why is this bad? Well, it uses only a tiny portion of your lungs. Conversely, deep breathing clears the lungs and creates a complete oxygen exchange — and that’s good.
In one study, researchers asked a group of volunteers to perform deep breathing exercises for two, five, and ten minutes.4They tested their lung function both before and after the exercises. The results were telling.
There was a significant increase in the participants’ vital lung capacity after two and five minutes of deep breathing exercises. Vital capacity is the maximum amount of air the subjects could exhale from their lungs. The results showed that deep breathing, even for a short period, was beneficial for lung function.
Breathing exercises can make your lungs more efficient, and it’s as easy as counting to eight!
First, try slowly breathing in through your nose alone. Then breathe out at least twice as long through your mouth. It helps to count breaths. For instance, while inhaling count 1-2-3-4. Then as you exhale, count 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8.
Besides encouraging good lung health, breathing exercises are great for calming down during stressful times. The breathing technique I just described is a common feature of meditation protocols.
My Take-Home Message
So there you have some helpful tips, but I didn’t mention that you need to stop smoking, because it should go without saying. Smoking is the worst possible thing for your lungs, or at least the worst among the ones you’re able to control.
In fact, according to the CDC, a significant portion of those COVID-19 patients who were admitted to the ICU for respiratory distress were smokers.5
Perhaps you think as a lifelong smoker, it’s simply too late to quit as the benefits will be negligible. Not so. You can benefit even if you’ve been smoking for 50 years.
According to the American Lung Association, just 12 hours after a smoker quits, carbon monoxide levels in the blood return to normal levels.6After just two weeks, lung function begins to improve. Within nine months, your coughing and shortness of breath decrease, too. If that’s not worth giving up smoking, I don’t know what is.
For more tips on kicking the habit, visit https://www.lung.org/quit-smoking/i-want-to-quit/benefits-of-quitting