Breath is essential to life, and our lungs make it happen. These two spongy organs rest deep in either side of our chest. Every time we inhale, our lungs harvest oxygen from the air we breathe and deposit it into our blood, which carries it into each cell in our body. Meanwhile, our cells constantly release carbon dioxide, which is also carried by our blood, and exhaled out through our lungs.
This incredibly complex yet undeniably critical mechanism is virtually effortless. The incessant inhalation and exhalation of our breath carries on night and day, whether we think about it or not.
The exchange of gasses our lungs perform is so vital to our wellbeing, that breathing is an automatic, built-in function of our bodies. And yet, it’s also vulnerable to breakdown by the lifestyle we lead.
Some habits clearly compromise our breathing, such as cigarette smoking. But much less is said about how our breathing suffers when we don’t move enough.
The less you move, the weaker and more compromised your lungs may become. Decades of research shows that sedentary behavior is linked to a rising risk of respiratory disease.
Fat and Breath
First, consider the fat factor. Sedentary behavior contributes to obesity, which in turn contributes to breathing problems. This direction of research began with longitudinal studies showing that, both in adults and children, there is a correlation between obesity and asthma, particularly in women.
Later, epidemiological studies confirmed this pattern, showing that a propensity for obesity predicted a tendency toward asthma.
Obesity can impair breathing in two ways. One is that excess fat, particularly in the chest and abdomen, weighs heavily on the lungs as well as the muscle that drives the bellows of your breath: the diaphragm.
Found just below your lungs, your diaphragm is like a flexible dome that pushes up against the bottom of your lungs. When your diaphragm contracts, your lungs fill with air. When it relaxes, the diaphragm expands and pushes the air out of your lungs.
But a diaphragm in an obese body has a larger load to carry. It has to expend more energy because it must work against the burden of excess fat. This burden can reduce lung volume as well, which means you get less out of each breath you take.
The other drawback to excess abdominal fat is that it tends to be highly inflammatory, increasing the cytokines and immune cells known to drive all forms of chronic disease.
This inflammatory factor raises the risk of lung problems such as asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and can even shorten your life. Data from a 2012 study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition suggest that excessive abdominal fat contributes to the increase of an inflammatory marker known as plasma IL-6. This marker was shown to be “strongly associated with all-cause and cause-specific mortality in older persons with obstructive lung disease.”
It’s a vicious cycle, because breathing problems can also drive obesity. If you already struggle to breathe, you may be less likely to engage in strenuous physical activities that make you huff and puff. A British study found that almost 80 percent of teenagers report that the worst thing about asthma was not being able to participate in sports due to compromised breathing.
Of course, not moving enough is not the only cause for breathing problems. And not everyone with asthma is obese. However, the relationship these two diseases share is nevertheless remarkable. A meta-analysis examining over 300,000 adults found obesity and asthma were related, and the risk of asthma increased with a greater body mass index (BMI). According to some estimates, about 250,000 new cases of asthma per year in the United States are related to obesity.
If excess fat impairs breathing, losing fat improves it, regardless of the fat reduction method. One review of studies examining weight loss and asthma found that all research observed an improvement in breathing outcome when subjects slimmed down, whether the fat was removed surgically or through good old fashioned diet and exercise.
Moving for Breath
In addition to shedding the pounds that may compress your lungs and diaphragm, exercise also contributes other breathing benefits.
When you physically exert yourself, your muscles demand more oxygen, and release more carbon dioxide in the process. This means your lungs have to work harder to keep up. This improves your oxygen intake, and makes your lungs progressively stronger.
According to fitness expert Gerry Bernstone, stronger muscles make breathing easier.
“Exercise has also been shown to help to increase the size of the airways, making it easier for air to move in and out. Additionally, exercise can help to improve the elasticity of the lungs, making them more efficient at exchanging oxygen and carbon dioxide,” Bernstone said.
So how should you move if you hope to breathe better? Aerobic exercise is the form best known for its improvements to lung function, because it challenges our breathing by its very nature. With consistent aerobic practice of walking, jogging, or bicycling, improvements are easy to see. A pace and distance that would have winded you weeks or months before may become a piece of cake, forcing you to pick up the pace to make further progress.
Aerobic exercise is certainly important for improving lung health. However, other forms of exercise can play a role.
For people who suffer from asthma, COPD, cystic fibrosis, or lung cancer, the American Lung Association recommends a program called pulmonary rehabilitation. The program includes a combination of aerobics, stretching, and resistance training as part of its instruction. Stretching provides relaxation, and a chance to focus on your breath. Resistance exercises (like weight lifting) can make your muscles stronger, including the ones that work your lungs.
This predominantly exercise-focused lung improvement program may also include nutritional and psychological counseling. Doctors prescribe the program, which can be tailored for each individual. An evaluation includes a stress test to measure things like blood pressure, heart rate, and oxygen level, as well as a test to see how far you can walk in six minutes. Patients are retested months later to monitor progress.
The program also teaches the mechanics of breathing so patients have a better understanding of their condition and how to manage it. The goal is to learn how to become more active with less shortness of breath.
But you need not be diagnosed with a breathing problem to find an excuse to improve your lungs. Cross country and swim coach turned personal trainer Bonnie Frankel (78) also recommends a combination of aerobics, resistance training, and stretching, as well deep breathing exercises to further enhance your lung capacity.
Frankel says to start gradually if you’re new to exercise, but be sure to find moves that you enjoy performing, because you’re more likely to be consistent if you’re having fun. Regularity is key, but you also don’t want to overwhelm yourself or cause an injury. To avoid becoming too easy or routine, try to mix it up.
“Your exercise program should vary in your workouts. This includes time, pace, place, mediums, and rest day or days,” Frankel said. The more you move, the quality of your life will improve.”