The breath is the center of life. And your lungs are the first link in the chain of breathing. They collect oxygen and other important molecules from the air and send them to the bloodstream to be distributed. Keeping your lungs healthy is vital to keeping your entire body healthy. So, we put together a few important things seniors need to know about lung health.
At high enough levels, air pollutants can start to affect your lungs. The two main types of air pollutants to look out for are ground-level ozone smog and soot. Ground-level ozone smog is a pollutant that is created when NOx gasses, such as those from an engine's exhaust, react with sunlight to produce ozone. Breathing in too much ozone can be damaging to your lung health. Usually, ground-level ozone smog is most prominent on sunny days in heavily populated areas. Soot is any fine particles in the air. This can be anything that hangs in the air, such as smoke, and is usually a problem when there isn’t much wind to blow the particles away so they become concentrated.
Often, when people breathe, they take small shallow breaths. This can come from many things, such as poor posture or muscle tension. Deep breathing exercises were originally meant to be used to create a calm mental state and relax the body, but they can also help with overall lung health.
When you don’t take full breaths or have a condition like COPD or asthma that causes shortness of breath, your lungs start to only use part of their capacity. This is an issue because you're getting less oxygen when you breathe, and stale air is building up in your lungs. Stale air is air that is caught in the lungs. You can visualize this working similarly to a syringe that you can’t fully push down so some of the liquid gets trapped. Regular practice of deep breathing exercises can help remove built up stale air and, in turn, increase your usable lung capacity.
The American Lung Association suggests practicing two deep breathing exercises to support lung health: pursed lip breathing and belly breathing. Pursed lip breathing is when you breathe through your nose with your lips pursed. Your exhale should be twice as long as your inhale. You can try counting to a number on the exhale and then counting to half that number on the inhale. Belly breathing is best practiced lying down. When you do this exercise, try to inflate your belly as you breathe in. You can find lots of tips on this exercise because it’s often practiced by vocalists. Keep in mind that breathing exercises are like any other new type of exercise: it takes practice to get good at it. These exercises may seem very difficult at first, but with time and regular repetition, you should see improvements.
It’s recommended to learn these exercises when you aren't short of breath before trying them when you are. And though these exercises are generally considered safe, asking your doctor before you add any physical therapy regimens to your routine is a good idea.
Aerobic exercises, such as running and swimming, and strength training exercises can help make your lungs stronger. When you exert your body, your heart and lungs need to work faster to provide your muscles with more oxygen. The more you do this, the stronger your cardiovascular system becomes, which can help you breathe easier. Exercise can also strengthen the muscles in the diaphragm, an important muscle for breathing well.
If you have lung disease or another cardiovascular issue, exercising can be difficult. That’s why it’s important to work with your doctors or a fitness specialist to find ways you can continue to exercise safely. And even if you don't have cardiovascular issues, talking to your medical provider before you adopt a workout is a good idea. And you probably also want to have a trainer or physical therapist show you how to do the movements to ensure you don’t injure yourself with improper form.
According to America’s Health Rankings more than 8% of seniors smoke cigarettes regularly. Smoking can lead to respiratory diseases, heart disease and a variety of cancers. It also compromises the immune system, leading to a much higher vulnerability to viruses like influenza and coronavirus. When your immune system is weakened, the effects of these viruses are greatly amplified and cause them to be fatal when they may not have been. Even among seniors, stopping smoking is still shown to create better outcomes than continuing. If you smoke, consider discussing the best way to get off of cigarettes with your doctor.