How to Improve Lung Function Naturally With Exercises for the Lungs
Our respiratory function is vital to our overall health and quality of life. If you’ve ever experienced the feeling of shortness of breath, you’ll know just how much both our body and our mind rely on our ability to breathe.
But besides the obvious things like not smoking and making sure we’re eating a balanced diet, what else can we do to improve our lung health? The answer? Lung exercises.
I’ll explain. But first, please remember that I’m not a doctor and nothing I say should be taken as professional medical advice (really you shouldn’t take anything said online as professional medical advice anyway). If you haven’t read my blog’s disclaimer, please take a few minutes to read it now.
I’m just somebody who lives with a serious lung condition called Bronchiolitis Obliterans who happens to cope with it quite well despite the fact my lungs only function at 60% of the norm for my age. I get asked often by friends, coworkers, fellow patients, and even my lung specialist how I’m able to live such an active and full life, and I feel compelled to share my experience and what’s been working for me.
And lung exercises work wonders for me. They’re a huge part of the reason why I’ve been able to able to slow down the progression of this disease and still keep up with everyday activities. I do many types of lung exercises—breathing exercises and physical exercises—that are especially beneficial for the lungs, and I do them daily.
If you’re interested in finding out what they are, keep reading.
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Breathing Exercises to Strengthen the Lungs
1. The Starfish
Ever wonder why our lung capacity decreases with age?
Well, for one thing, our chest cage can become tighter and less elastic as our bones grow thinner. This, in turn, makes it more difficult for your chest to fully expand, thus reducing your total lung volume. This is why it’s a good idea to give your chest a good stretch every day. It’ll help keep your chest flexible and yet strong.
And there’s no better exercise than what I call “the starfish” for this purpose.
Here’s how you do the starfish lung exercise:
- Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart.
- Bend at the waist and lower your upper body as if you’re trying to touch your toes. While you do this, exhale until you feel like there’s no more air inside your lungs.
- Before you take another breath in, pause for 3-5 seconds (or however long your body is comfortable with).
- Take a long, deep breath (count to 5 while you inhale) into your belly while straightening your upper body.
- While you’re straightening your upper body, extend your arms out to either side as far out as you can, as if you’re making the shape of a starfish with your body. You should feel a nice, relaxing stretch across your chest.
- When you’ve taken a full breath in, hold it for 5 seconds (or however long you’re comfortable with).
- Repeat the above steps 10 times.
I love doing the Starfish in front of an open window every morning so that I can clear out all the stale air in my lungs and take in the fresh air. The exercise always fills me with the energy I need to start the day, and I feel good knowing that I’m doing something good for my lungs too.
Qi-gong (pronounced “chee-gung”) is a type of moving meditation that combines fluid, rhythmic movements with deep breathing and meditative practices to promote the overall wellbeing of the body, mind, and spirit.
Many movements in Qi-gong benefit a specific part of the body, such as “Draw the Bow”—a movement within a popular form of Qi-gong called “8 Pieces of Brocade”.
Here’s how you do “Draw the Bow” Qi-gong lung exercise:
- Stand with your feet more than shoulder-width apart. Your hands should remain loose and relaxed by your sides.
- Slowly bring both arms toward your chest while taking a deep, long breath into your belly.
- Bend both knees until you achieve a horse stance. At the same time, exhale and open your arms as if you’re drawing a bow to the left side of your body.
- Straighten your knees and bring your arms back to your side and repeat the same sequence on the right side of your body.
- Repeat 3 times on each side.
I like to do the entire “8 Pieces of Brocade” Qi-gong at least 2 times a day because it really calms me down and helps me take deeper, fuller breaths. For an accurate and clear visual demonstration of “8 Pieces of Brocade”, including “Draw the Bow”, I highly recommend this video from Perth Taichi Academy.
3. Pursed-Lip Breathing
Pursed-lip breathing is one of the simplest and most effective ways to combat shortness of breath.
It is a recommended practice for patients who suffer from Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disorder (COPD) to help them ease breathing difficulties, and when practiced regularly over time, it can help strengthen the lungs.
Here’s how to do the pursed-lip breathing lung exercise:
- Inhale for 2 seconds through your nose and allow the breath to go deep within your body, filling your entire chest and abdomen with air.
- Hold your breath for 1-2 seconds.
- Purse your lips as if you’re about to blow a kiss. Slowly exhale for 4-6 seconds (or longer) through your mouth.
I like to do pursed-lip breathing right before I go to bed every night. Not only is it a proven way to improve lung performance, but it’s also a wonderful way to unwind at the end of a long day.
4. Diaphragmatic Breathing
Diaphragmatic breathing, also known as belly breathing or abdominal breathing, is a breathing technique that helps strengthen the key muscle engaged in the breathing process—the diaphragm.
Not only does it help reduce stress and anxiety, but it also generates many physical benefits such as improved core muscle stability and increased exercise tolerance.
Diaphragmatic breathing is so good for the body and mind that health experts say we should be breathing with our belly—not just with our chest—all the time.
Here’s a simple exercise to help you get in the groove of diaphragmatic breathing:
- Lie down on your back. Relax your neck and shoulders.
- Place a hand gently on your belly.
- Inhale slowly through the nose for 4 seconds. You should feel the rise of your belly with your hand.
- Pause for 4 seconds at the top of the breath.
- Exhale slowly through the nose for 4 seconds. You should feel your belly falling. Let it fall as much it can towards your spine. Pause for 4 seconds after you’ve let all the air out.
- Repeat the above steps 5 times.
5. Resistance Breathing
What is resistance breathing? Think of it as weight training for your lungs.
You make it harder to get air in and out of your body with some form of resistance, and this, in turn, allows you to breathe easier at other times and makes your body use oxygen more efficiently. Research also shows that a combination of resistance breathing and physical exercise creates a two-fold effect—increased endurance and improved respiratory muscle function.
A few years ago, I started using a small, portable resistance breathing device similar to the Expand-A-Lung.
I use it once a day and usually breathe through it about 25 times. It’s a key part of my daily lung exercise routine and I have no doubt that this is one of the reasons my lung function has remained relatively stable for the past 3 years despite the progressive nature of my lung disease. I also love the fact that it has an adjustable valve that lets you control the amount of resistance you want, and it’s easy to clean and store away when not in use.
But if you have an existing lung condition, before you do any type of resistance breathing either using this device or other methods, you should discuss with your doctor to make sure it is safe for you. And if you do decide to do resistance breathing exercises, make sure you start slowly using the lowest level of resistance.
How Often Should You Do Breathing Exercises
Well, that depends. How important do you view the health and proper functioning of your lungs? If it’s a priority for you, then you should aim to do at least a few breathing exercises a day.
For me, breathing exercises are a part of my daily life. I do “the starfish” 10 times in the morning, followed by 25 times of resistance breathing. On most evenings, I practice 45 minutes of Qi-gong and end the night with 10-15 minutes of pursed-lip breathing. And as for diaphragmatic breathing, well I try to do that all the time!
Besides breathing exercises, there are also many forms of physical exercises that can improve our respiratory health. Next, we’ll look at 5 of the best physical exercises for the lungs.
Physical Exercises to Expand Lung Capacity
Swimming is considered to be one of the best—if not the best—physical exercise for the lungs.
Not only does it help strengthen our diaphragm, but it also helps improve the elasticity of our chest wall, which—as I’ve mentioned earlier—leads to greater overall lung capacity.
I used to swim at least once a week for the first couple of years after my lung diagnosis, and I felt amazing. Then life got busy with the wedding, moving into our first home together, and getting a kitten and all, so I stopped swimming for an entire year.
That year, my lung function dropped for the first time ever since my diagnosis. I can’t say for certain that NOT swimming was the sole cause of the decline—since there were a few other changes in my routine that could have led to the discouraging result—but I’m sure it didn’t help. So I pushed myself to get back into the pool.
But of course, life always has a way of interrupting our plans—3 months after I started swimming regularly again, the public pools in our city all shut down due to the pandemic. I promised myself that when the pools open again, I will be back in the water, swimming my way to better lung health.
Don’t know how to swim? Not a problem. Even if you just jog in the pool or do water aerobics, the pressure from the water will still provide a good workout for your lungs.
Hiking is another excellent aerobic exercise that can increase your stamina and maintain healthy lung function.
When you’re hiking, you work your lungs hard, which—according to my lung specialist—you need to do regularly in order to keep them in good shape. Not to mention, all that fresh air will do your lungs good.
If you’re new to hiking, it’s best to start out with shorter, flatter trails and gradually work your way up to longer and steeper ones.
When I first started hiking a few years ago, I couldn’t even walk up an incline without stopping to catch my breath. And when I did, I would get woozy and feel like I could throw up. Then with practice, I started being able to tackle longer, more difficult trails—trails like Mount Fromme, with an elevation of 880 meters, which took me 6 hours to complete. For someone who once couldn’t even finish a 45-minute hike without almost blacking out, I consider this a major achievement!
A word of caution though, hiking can be tough on your ankles and knees. Make sure you have proper footwear and plenty of water and energy bars to keep you going.
Did you know that doing push-ups can make you breathe easier?
The push-up is a simple (I said simple, I didn’t say easy) exercise that can strengthen and tone your chest, shoulder, upper back muscles, as well as your core.
These are the muscles you need in order to take a full, deep breath. And when they’re strong, your breath is powerful.
I used to do at least 60 pushups a day (2 sets of 15 pushups done 2 times a day, not 60 all at once!), but I stopped around the same time I took a break from swimming—this is one of those changes in routine I mentioned that could have also contributed to the decline in my lung function. Now I aim to do at least 30 pushups every day until I feel strong enough again to do 60.
Now here’s a little tip to help you get the most benefit out of the push-up: Widening the distance between your hands not only makes it easier for you to do the push-up, but it will also place more focus on working your chest muscles.
The plank is the perfect exercise to build a stronger core for breathing. But the trick is to do it right.
Here’s how to do a proper plank:
- Start out by lying flat on your stomach.
- Bend your elbows and rest your forearms on the floor.
- Place your weight on your forearms and lift your body so that your spine is horizontal and parallel to the floor. Your back should not dip down or arch upwards.
- Tighten your abs, keep your neck straight, and hold this position for 10-15 seconds and release. You can work your way up to holding the plank for 30-60 seconds at a time.
I used to do the plank every day for a minute and a half each time, but after a long hiatus from doing them regularly, I can only hold the plank for less than a minute now. This is also another habit I’m currently in the process of re-igniting because I believe it played a key role in the stability of my lung function.
5. Strength Training
How does lifting weights benefit the lungs, you ask?
While increasing muscle mass doesn’t directly improve your lung health, it does improve your endurance by reducing exhaustion and breathlessness.
And here’s a short video on simple strength training moves that you can do right in your living room:
How Often Should You Do Physical Exercises for Better Lung Health
To get the most benefit out of physical exercise, aim to do at least 150 minutes a week.
If you find it hard to stick to a regular exercise routine, start with just a few minutes a day and work your way up. Break up the exercises into really small tasks you can do each day—for example, start with a couple of pushups and a few seconds of plank—and gradually increase the repetition and intensity once you get the hang of it.
This is called the Stephen Duneier method, and you can learn more about it in my post “How to Achieve Your Goals and Dreams With Ease”.
That’s for 10 simple lung exercises I do to keep my lungs in good shape. Before you go, be sure to leave me a comment and let me know if you enjoyed this post. And don’t forget to check out my other posts on lung health in the “Recommended Articles” section below!