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How to Strengthen Your Lungs to Fight COVID-19

Doctors say that deep breathing exercises can help — but cardio trumps all

woman outdoors breathing deeply with closed eyes

Alexander Ford/Getty Images

En español | As you know, COVID-19 is a respiratory disease that can cause serious lung damage and breathing problems — along with a host of other health issues.

And as the virus continues to spread, you may be wondering if strengthening your lungs will help you fight it off if you are infected.

"One of the first things that happens with COVID is that you get short of breath and your oxygen saturation begins to fall,” says Raymond Casciari, a pulmonologist at St. Joseph Hospital in Orange, California. “The better condition your lungs are in, the better off you will be."

To get your lungs into better shape, the top critical-care pulmonologists we interviewed all agreed that the best option – hands down – is regular old physical activity, the kind that gets your heart rate up.

"Anything that makes you breathe faster is basically a breathing exercise,” says Joshua Denson, a pulmonary and critical care specialist and assistant professor of medicine at Tulane University School of Medicine. “My first advice would not be, ‘Go sit in a chair and breathe deeply.’ I'd say, ‘Get on a bike and ride 20 minutes a day,’ or ‘Go for a brisk walk.'"

Aim for activity that ramps up your breathing

Staying active is especially important for older Americans, because lung function decreases as you age. Over time, the muscles that support your breathing become weaker, lung tissue loses elasticity and the air sacs inside your lungs become baggier. Studies show exercise can slow that decline and boost lung function.

Aerobic activity also helps air get into the deepest parts of your lungs that you don't use when you are sedentary, says Bruce Levy, chief of the Division of Pulmonary and Critical Care Medicine at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston.

"If there are any secretions or pollutants you've breathed in, aerobic activity helps you clear them out of your lung and decreases your risk of infection or pneumonia,” he says.

"Aerobic fitness also helps your body obtain oxygen from the environment and use it in the most efficient manner,” he says. “If you happen to get COVID, if you've been doing cardio, that's going to help you.”

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What's important for lung health, Levy and others say, is to exercise at an intensity that quickens your breathing rate and leaves you feeling breathless, whether it's swimming, biking or walking briskly.

"Some older adults are deathly afraid of feeling ‘short of breath,'” Casciari says. “I have to convince them that it's a good thing.”

How breathing exercises can help

Deep breathing exercises are another way to get air deep into your lungs and clear secretions.

Although they're not as effective as physical activity, they are better than doing nothing for people who are sedentary, pulmonologists say, and they can be particularly helpful for people who have mobility issues.

"If you're bedridden, or caring for someone who's bedridden, doing some controlled breathing can be very useful because there is no other way to train,” Levy says. “If you are not exercising, the base of your lungs can partially collapse, which increases the risk for infection if you breathe in a virus.”

Levy notes that if you already exercise regularly (and don't have a chronic lung condition), breathing exercises may not confer any additional respiratory benefit, but they certainly won't cause any harm.

Besides, you may reap other benefits: Research shows slow, controlled breathing can help lower your heart rate, stabilize your blood pressure and ease anxiety.

A simple breathing exercise

Respiratory therapists use different breathing exercises and equipment to help patients who have chronic lung conditions, but most people without a chronic condition can clear their lungs with a simple deep breathing technique, Levy says.

Here's how to do it: Slowly take in a big, deep breath through your nose, allowing your belly to rise as you fill your lungs, and hold it there for a few seconds. Exhale fully.

Repeat a few times, and then force yourself to cough, so you bring up any secretions. (Make sure you wear a mask if there are people nearby.)

The exercise is a preventive measure “that gets out the secretions sitting in the gravity-dependent portions of your lungs and decreases your risk of pneumonia and infection” if you're not exercising, Levy says. “It's a simple thing people can do for lung health.”