Keeping your lungs healthy

Changes due to Parkinson’s can sometimes mean that you get out of breath more easily, so it’s important to keep your lungs healthy. Specialist physiotherapist Bhanu Ramaswarmy tells us more.

What are the lungs - and how do they work?

The lungs are the parts of the body that we use to breathe. They let oxygen into the blood, which is then circulated around your body.

Air from the lungs also helps us to create speech and sound, and force a cough strong enough to keep passages clear of phlegm.

Parkinson's symptoms and the lungs

Exercising your lungs, chest muscles and rib cage is important when you have Parkinson’s.

  • Your chest wall can become stiff, and the muscles weaker. This can make it harder to breathe or cough.
  • Changes in posture can make you bend over or ‘stoop’ forwards, which reduces the amount of air you can take into your lungs.
  • Wearing off and involuntary movements can make your breathing more erratic and shallow.

It might sound scary, but pneumonia, a respiratory complication, is the main reason people with Parkinson’s are admitted to hospital in an emergency and can be life-threatening.

In addition to this, stress, anxiety or other medical conditions can also affect how you breathe.

Exercises to keep your lungs healthy

If the weather is good, try doing these exercises outside. If you prefer, get someone else to join in with you like your partner or a family member.

Keep your rib cage flexible by trying exercises that open the chest.

  • Take both arms behind your body to stretch out the front of the chest, and pull back your shoulder blades.
  • Stretch both arms upwards into a Y position, link your fingers, and place your hands either side of your head. If possible, place your hands on the back of your neck. Gently pull your elbows backwards to stretch the front of the chest.
  • Twist your body from left to right a few times to stretch the muscles on the side of the rib cage.

Work the diaphragm by doing deep breathing exercises. These are also good for stress.

  • Sit or lie in a comfortable position so your body is relaxed.
  • Breathe in slowly through your nose and fill your lungs so that you feel your lower rib cage expanding. Hold for a couple of seconds.
  • With relaxed shoulders, breathe out.
  • Repeat this 3-5 times, at your own pace, but make each one larger than the one before.

Do aerobic work or ‘cardio’, which increases your heart rate and breathing. This in turn increases the efficiency of your lungs.

  • March on the spot for 2 minutes. Hold on to a supportive surface if your balance isn’t good, or sit 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. Slow down at any point if you’re finding it difficult, but aim to get your pace up by the end of the 2 minutes.
  • If Parkinson’s affects one side of your body more than the other, it will tire quickly and not keep up as well as the other side. Over time, see if you can pump your arms at the same time, lift your legs higher or march for longer.

More information

  • A speech and language therapist can help you use your lungs more effectively for speech and conversation. Find out more about speech and language therapy.
  • If you are experiencing shortness of breath for no apparent reason, speak to your GP, specialist or Parkinson’s nurse.