October is Healthy Lung Month, which means we’ll see a full-court press about things like “healthy breathing” and the importance of fresh air. While those buzzwords look great on a bluish-green Instagram slideshow PSA, they can often confuse the public regarding what it means for someone to practice these habits.
Lung health is generally correlated with not doing potentially harmful things, sure, but it doesn’t stop there. In truth, there is a lot that we can do to achieve the best possible breathing experiences for ourselves at little to no personal cost.
Everyone understands exercise brings massive benefits to respiratory health over time, especially high-cardio activities. But many young people fall into the trap of believing these benefits are relatively marginal. A potential explanation could be that cardio is perceived as a “fun” exercise. Running may be seen as boring, sure, but sports like basketball and soccer require solid conditioning to play effectively. Someone less interested in those activities might not see the point if they aren’t aware of the many benefits off the field.
There’s so much more to lung capacity than improving one’s rec league performance. We only use roughly 50% of our daily capacity without regular exercise.
“Like the rest of your body, lungs thrive on movement and activity,” says Gagan Singh, RRT, who works as a registered respiratory therapist (RRT).
As Singh points out, normal sedentary respiration simply isn’t enough to keep up with antagonistic outside factors at play for many of us. “To help counteract the buildup of toxins and tar in the lungs caused by environmental pollutants, allergens, dust, and cigarette smoke, you need to help your lungs cleanse themselves,” Singh says.
Another lung-boosting practice is diaphragmatic breathing, a method of consciously altering one’s respiration for a few moments. Much like how weightlifters talk about that coveted “mind-muscle connection” as a way of being in touch with specific muscle groups, experts say that deeper breathing is achieved by consciously lowering one’s diaphragm with each breath.
“This is the technique that professional singers use to increase their lung capacity,” says Rush Hospital’s Mollie Brinkman, RRT. As the purpose is to inhale deeper, diaphragmatic breathing can be even more effective for people with asthma, emphysema, or chronic bronchitis.
Every part of the body is interconnected, and the respiratory system is no exception. This interdependence also means that a surprising number of seemingly unrelated behaviors affect lung health.
Posture, for example, is extremely important as it limits or expands the chest cavity and gives you more room to (literally) breathe.
“A simple technique for giving your lungs even more room is leaning back slightly in a stable chair, lifting the chest and opening the front of your body as you breathe deeply,” says Singh.
The respiratory therapist also mentioned the importance of drinking water in maintaining healthy lungs. Regular hydration permits healthy production in the lung’s mucosal lining, something that can limit proper function if neglected.