When it's hard to breathe, it's hard to imagine doing any sort of exercise, but working out could be the best thing to clear your lungs and breathe easier. Those with chronic lung diseases, such as asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, deal with restricted airflow and shortness of breath as an unwelcome part of daily life. Simple breathing exercises like three-part breath, pursed-lip breathing and belly breathing can strengthen your lungs and ultimately improve your quality of life.
Breathing is natural and easy with healthy lungs. But with asthma, the airways narrow and swell and produce extra mucus. The symptoms are similar with COPD, an umbrella of bronchitis and emphysema. Bronchitis is caused by increased inflammation and mucus, while emphysema is caused by the destruction and enlargement of air spaces. Lung HelpLine respiratory therapist Mark Courtney says that over time, these diseases cause air to get trapped in our lungs, resulting in lower oxygen levels and less energy for exercise and activity.
One of the best forms of exercise to improve your breath is yoga. Yesica Rodriguez is a yoga instructor from San Diego; she explains that because yoga is a practice of mindfulness, by doing it you become more aware of subtle sensations in your body, in particular how you are feeling physically and emotionally.
"Your breath is like a guide to what is going on inside," Rodriguez says. "When your breath is slow, steady, deep and calm, your body is likely relaxed and you feel safe and comfortable. When your breath is labored, shallow and unsteady, you are likely feeling panicked, uncomfortable or unsafe. Your breath helps communicate that something is wrong and that you need to make a change, or that everything is just right."
Rodriguez has been teaching yoga at several locations for more than seven years, and she says that heart opener poses, such as Cobra and Supported Fish, are particularly helpful because they open and stretch the chest and stimulate the lungs. Another exercise is mindful breathing, simply bringing awareness to your breath as you do the poses. She likes to teach her students Three-Part Breath, which is done with one hand on your belly and one hand on your chest.
"Start by taking deep breaths in and out through the nose, and count the length of the inhale with the length of the exhale, trying to find an even rhythm," she says. "Once you are comfortable with that, start your inhale through the belly, feel your breath move up through the ribcage and then the chest. As you exhale, go backwards; chest, ribcage then belly." Repeat this pattern at least five times. This breath teaches you to breathe fully and deeply, increasing your oxygen supply and decreasing your stress and anxiety levels.
Just as aerobic exercise strengthens your muscles and improves your heart function, breathing exercises can make your lungs more efficient, says the American Lung Association. Pulmonary rehabilitation specialists teach pursed-lip breathing and belly breathing to people with chronic lung diseases. Pursed-lip breathing keeps your airways open longer and reduces the number of breaths you take. "More air is able to flow in and out of your lungs so you can be more physically active," the association says. To practice it, simply breathe in through your nose and, with pursed lips, breathe out at least twice as long through your mouth.
Belly breathing, aka diaphragmic breathing, allows you to retrain your diaphragm to take on the work of filling and emptying your lungs. It also starts with breathing in through your nose. Put your hands lightly on your stomach or place a tissue box on it so you can be aware of your belly rising and falling as it fills with air, the association says. Exhale through your mouth for at least two times as long as your inhale. And make sure you relax your neck and shoulders. Ideally, you should practice both exercises for five to 10 minutes each day.
No matter what exercises you choose to help with labored breathing, it's imperative to take it easy. "We breathe better when we are in a safe, relaxed environment, so putting too much pressure on yourself to improve your breathing will have the opposite effect," Rodriguez says. "Instead, go at your own pace, allow yourself to feel comfortable and be supported and whatever exercise you choose, bring mindfulness into it." Soon it will be out with the old, stale air and in with fresh air.