Exercise for the lungs

Physiotherapist Bhanu Ramaswamy explains how exercise can help improve your breathing and lung health.

We know that physical activity helps to keep us fit. It also improves our thinking, memory and mood, and prevents conditions such as high blood pressure and diabetes. Few people, however, realise that exercise also keeps our lungs healthy.

What do the lungs do?

When you breathe in, your lungs take in oxygen, which is then circulated around your body, providing you with energy.

Exercise causes the lungs to increase their rate of breathing to match the action of the heart, which works harder to pump blood faster round the body, particularly to the muscles. The lungs and ribcage are flexible enough to expand like bellows. They adjust to the need for deeper, bigger breaths.

What happens when the lungs aren’t working at their best?

When the muscles and joints that work our breathing mechanisms become weak or stiff, the lungs become less efficient. This means a person may be short of breath and more easily tired when carrying out everyday tasks. Some people find it hard to cough strongly enough to clear phlegm, which can develop into a chest infection.

It might sound scary, but exercising the lungs is critically important for people with Parkinson’s. Pneumonia is the main reason people with the condition are admitted to hospital in an emergency, and respiratory complications, such as a chest infection or pneumonia, can be life-threatening.

How to test your lungs at home

If you’re worried about your breathing, or you feel that your ribcage is so stiff you cannot take a deep breath, your GP can arrange a test to diagnose any lung problems. This uses a spirometer, which measures the amount of air you can inhale and exhale.

However, there are more fun ways to test this for yourself. Below are four simple checks that will also strengthen your lungs and keep your ribcage flexible. If you find some of these tests difficult, such as becoming light-headed or out of breath, then you know you have some work to do in strengthening your lungs.

Breathing muscles

Using a mirror, watch your body as you breathe. We naturally breathe in using the diaphragm, a large muscle at the base of our ribcage, so you should see your belly expand and your lower ribs move outward. These areas sink back to their normal position when we breathe out. If your ribcage is stiff, you may ‘chest breathe’, where you see the upper chest inflate and your shoulders move up and down. This wastes energy and is not an efficient way of breathing. Your GP can refer you to a physiotherapist if you need to learn better breathing techniques.

Lung power

Time how long you can hold a note before your voice starts quivering or the note becomes quieter or strained in quality. You should be able to breathe deeply enough to keep a loud and good quality note going for 10 seconds. This is the length of time it would take to say a long sentence if you were having a conversation with someone. The shower is a good place to really test yourself. See if you can match Barbra Streisand and Whitney Houston, who could hold a strong note for over 40 seconds!

Ribcage flexibility

The ribs create a ‘cage’ through their connection to the spine at the back and the breastbone at the front. This means that a poor posture and shoulder or back problems can restrict the movement of your ribcage. Can you raise your arms straight up to the ceiling without leaning backwards? Can you twist your upper body around to the side, to at least a 45-degree angle, without your bottom twisting round too?

Exercises you can do at home

A very easy work-out for your ribcage and lungs is to march on the spot for 2 minutes. You can do this sitting in a chair if you’re not able to stand. Set as fast a pace as you can manage without having to stop to catch your breath. Over time, see if you can pump your arms, lift your legs higher or march for longer.

This is only a start though, and it’s best to seek better and more specific advice from your GP to keep your lungs fit and healthy.

Singing

Singing, either at home or with an organised group, is a great way to keep your lungs healthy.

To find out more, search for ‘singing‘ on the British Lung Foundation’s website