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.”
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.”