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How to Increase your Lung Power

Updated on April 5, 2015

Your body betrays you yet again

Driving home on the hilly Auckland roads, I was scanning radio stations and happened to stop on ‘You make me feel like dancing’ by Leo Sayer. After an intense sitting dance sesh complete with air mic and dramatic eyebrow raising behind the wheel, I had to go home, change into my pjs and have a little dance off in my bedroom. Half an hour and six songs later, I was standing over the bathroom sink staring at my red face and watery eyes, coughing up my lungs, willing myself to breathe.

The sound of your ragged gasping breath is worse than the breathlessness itself. That struggle for air and the wheezing in your lungs is not welcome at the best of times but when you’re panicking, trying to suck in as much oxygen as you can, the sound of it only makes it worse, exacerbating your shallow breathing further. While this feeling is all too familiar, it hadn’t happened to me in over a year and I honestly thought it was all in the past. What shocked me was the feeling of helplessness I had and fear as I sat in bed for two hours listening to my (lack of) breathing as my brother rubbed my back at midnight and made me cups of tea to calm me down. It took a good hour for me to feel confident enough to lay down on my side and trust myself to fall asleep without feeling like I might stop breathing altogether. Needless to say, I don’t ever want to feel like that again.

Time for change

For those of you like me, you shallow-breathers, kids who probably had borderline asthma but were never diagnosed with it or if you’re like me, lived in denial and refused to use an inhaler, you know what it’s like when you hear that wheeze in your chest. You think back to everything you did in the last week and wonder, what if I had not eaten that ice cream, what if I had wrapped up a bit warmer that night, what if I hadn’t had ice with my coke. Normal people don’t need to worry about things like this and beat themselves up for it. And neither should I.

If you were a kid like me who had pneumonia numerous times due to the cold, pollution, pollen or some combination of them and doctors mumbled the words ‘hyperactive airway passage’ to your parents and other adults reassured them ‘don’t worry she’ll grow out of it as she gets older’ and you kept waiting for yourself to grow out of it and guess what – you never did – then it’s probably time to do something about it.

After spending the last year living in Melbourne with a warmer climate, I actually know what it’s like to not be struggling to breathe on and off during the year and tiptoeing through life hoping that I won’t get sick. And after seeing how full life can be when you don’t have to worry about all the stupid little things that my lungs put me through, I can’t go back to this. It had my wondering what had caused this episode after more than a year – was it the change in weather, a different diet, lack of exercise, or a combination of all of them? And what can I do to actively change my lifestyle to make sure this doesn’t happen again?

How can I strengthen my lungs?

I don’t claim to be a health professional in any shape or form but a bit of research aka google searches, lead me to conclude that these are some of the basics in strengthening your lungs and increasing lung capacity:

  1. Aerobic Activity. It’s suggested by websites such as Livestrong that you should do at least 5 30-60 minute aerobic activity sessions a week. This could be walking, dancing, biking, swimming, or anything else that gets your heart racing. Cardiovascular exercise strengthens the muscles around your lungs and your lungs have to work a lot harder to send oxygen to your heart. I would suggest starting off slow and slowly increasing the pace and duration of your exercise. While I used to do 5km runs on a regular basis in high school and even did the odd 10km run, I found that running around the block and up a hill had me wheezing and coughing, staring at my fear-stricken face in the mirror yet again. That is a face I refuse to look at any more, so start off slow peeps!
  2. Deep Breathing. This is one that I particularly hate. I’m a restless kid at heart and anything that has overtones of meditation and classical music and clearing your mind makes me run for the hills. But here I am giving it a go! The aim is to practice deep breathing for 10 – 15 minutes a day, even if setting a timer and clocking out of social media and your phones for just 15 minutes and paying attention to your breath. I think this is the one I’m going to struggle with the most – who wants to watch their stomach expanding in and out ugh.
  3. Resistance. Continue doing deep breathing but add a further layer of complexity by increasing your resistance. It is suggested to use a stretchy exercise band and wrap this around your crest and hold it with your hands so it is snug around you. The increased resistance makes your lung muscles work harder to push the hand out as you inhale. I don’t actually have one of these so what I’m doing to do instead is do this exercise while I’m doing crunches or sit ups.

Aerobic Exercises

If you’re going to do this, there’s no point in beating around the bush. Going for a stroll in the park is not going to make a difference and before you know it you’ll be right back where you started. The key to aerobic exercises for increasing your lung power is to work your lungs really hard. Aerobics is a great way to increase your lung capacity, and you can develop this through short bursts of intense training. If synchronized movement and music is not your thing, try running or cycling in a hilly area, meaning your longs have to supply more oxygen to your heart as your body needs to pump more blood to your legs. The best sport to improve cardiovascular fitness however is swimming. The added compression on your body from the water means that your lungs have to work a lot harder with any exercise you do in the water.

I for one hate the cold and know that I will not be motivated enough to go to a swimming pool five times a week but I’m going to give aerobics and running a go and see how that works over the next three weeks. Another suggestion is interval training. While interval training at the gym is easy with lots of machines to set a route with elevated climbs, a lot of people, myself included, don’t have the time or money to make it to the gym five times a week.

After a lot of searching, this is the best Interval Training routine I found online that I will be doing myself twice a week or whenever I have a day off from work.

Stand in front of a park bench and do each of these exercises for a minute each:

- Toe Taps

- Pushups

- Jumping Jacks

- Abdominal crunches

- Bench Jumps

- Alternate leg lunges

Other Breathing Exercises

If you get sick of deep breathing, like I am about to, then there are a few other breathing exercises I’ve read about that could be more fun.

  1. Blowing balloons. While you’re walking around doing other things or have a spare couple of minutes, practice blowing a balloon up. Keep doing this over and over again and watch how your lungs can slowly pump more air, as they get stronger.
  2. Breathe in for 2 – 20 seconds, breathe out for 10 – 20 seconds, and slowing increase the rate. Easy one to do in ad breaks or when you’re sitting at the traffic lights.
  3. Tape a piece of paper or a tissue to the end of your nose and blow it as long as possible, trying to keep it in the air. If you want to compete with yourself, you could time yourself and try to improve your time every day.

Foods that promote lung health

- Apples. Foods that contain vitamins C, E and beta-carotene have been linked to having better lung function.

- Fish. Fish oil contains omega3 fatty acids which are also linked to better lung function as they moderate lung function and moderate levels of arachidonic acide in your body.

- Wine. While the studies could be influenced by the fact that wine drinkers may just have better lifestyles overall, wine is rich in antioxidants and a moderate consumption of wine may be good for your lungs

- Green Tea. Green Tea contains properties that reduce lung inflammation and catechins, a powerful antioxidant.

- Carrots. Carrots contain vitamin A which helps fight against bacteria and other infection causing pathogens which lead to pneumonia and other respiratory illnesses.

- Red Bell Peppers. Peppers are rich in Vitamin C, as are citrus fruits and juices, papaya, kiwifruit, leafy greens, and Brussels sprouts which reduce inflammation in your respiratory system.

- Soups. Hot soups increase hydration and help your body flush out toxins. Broth based soups with vegetables provide antioxidant benefits. Include lentils, beans, fish and turkey breast. Chicken in soup also provides amino acids and aids in tissue repair and physical strength.

I hope this helps all my fellow shallow-breathers and maybe-asthmatics living in denial, there is no reason to live in the shadow of your next breathless episode. Make a change to your lifestyle now and we will both get stronger as we progress!

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