When a person contracts COVID-19, the virus travels to their mucus membranes, and then to their lungs. In response, the body causes the lungs to become inflamed. This inflammation affects the lungs’ ability to transfer oxygen into the blood and remove carbon dioxide . A lack of oxygen can cause the patient to gasp for air, and lead to more serious illness. The good news is, the stronger your lungs are, the better they’ll be at fighting off the infection. A few small lifestyle changes, along with some lung exercises won’t protect you from COVID-19, but it will help strengthen your respiratory health to reduce your risk of serious illness.
How to Improve Your Respiratory Health
Improving your respiratory health is not complicated. If you are a young, healthy person who exercises regularly and does not smoke, you will be much better able to fight off the novel coronavirus should you become infected.
If you are not, all it takes is a few lifestyle changes and you can drastically improve the health of your lungs, heart, and the rest of your respiratory system.
1. Quit Smoking
Cigarettes and vapes both impair lung function. If you want to improve your respiratory health, it is crucial that you avoid anything that prevents your lungs from working at full capacity. Both smoking and vaping irritate the lungs and can destroy lung tissue where air exchange occurs.
“Smoke is composed of small particles; when inhaled, the particles get stuck in the lungs,” said Dr. Robert Eitches, an allergist and immunologist at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. “This begins a vicious cycle of permanent lung damage.” 
Additionally, both of these habits can suppress your immune system.
Dr. Ryan Steele, an allergist-immunologist and assistant professor at the Yale School of Medicine, also warns against smoking marijuana. He explains that anytime you are inhaling something combustible, you are increasing the stress on your lungs. This will cause increased inflammation.
“Even if it’s for medical purposes, you want to be careful with anything that you’re igniting and inhaling into your lungs at this point,” he said .
Eitches adds that anything that emits smoke into the air, which you then inhale and deposit into your chest, can be harmful. This includes candles and fireplaces.
According to several critical-care pulmonologists, the hands-down best way to improve your respiratory health is good old fashioned exercise.
Joshua Denson is a pulmonary and critical care specialist and assistant professor of medicine at Tulane University School of Medicine. He says anything that makes you breath faster is basically a breathing exercise.
“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.’” 
This is especially important for older adults. Lung function decreases as you age- the muscles that support breathing weaken, lung tissue becomes less elastic, and the air sacs inside your lungs become baggier.
Bruce Levy is chief of the Division of Pulmonary and Critical Care Medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. He says that aerobic activity helps get air into the deepest part of your lungs that you don’t use when you’re sedentary. It also helps clear any secretions or pollutants you’ve breathed in, decreasing your risk of infection or pneumonia.
“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.” 
Levy points out, though, that in order to reap the benefits of aerobic activity, you have to exercise at the right intensity. You need to do activities that quicken your breathing rate and leave you feeling breathless.
3. Reduce Mucus Buildup
Mucus is not always a bad thing. It occurs naturally in our bodies, helps to maintain a healthy respiratory tract, and helps to capture allergens, bacteria, and viruses. We swallow a majority of this mucus, but when something irritates our nasal passages, we can produce too much mucus. This excess mucus buildup can be difficult to clear.
Excess mucus creates a perfect environment for bacteria and viruses, and prevents oxygen from entering and leaving the lungs. Steele says that we also have mucus in our lungs. People with asthma, for example, have too much mucus, which puts them at a greater risk for inflammation and blockages in the airways.
Although it is not fully understood, there may be a connection between diet and mucus buildup. Eitches says that some people believe inflammatory foods like milk and wheat increase mucus production.
“Another school of thought that I have seen to work both anecdotally with my patients and with myself is eating spicy foods,” he says .
The capsaicin in spicy foods like chilis, jalapenos, and cayenne, can thin mucus. This makes it easier to cough out. Other ways to control excess mucus could be to use a nasal spray, or an inhaler if you have asthma.
Taking a hot shower or boiling water to make a hot towel compress can also help because the hot steam can thin out mucus.
4. Decrease Your Exposure to Allergens
When you’re inside, you’re exposed to allergens like dust. Outdoors, particularly in the spring, you’re exposed to large amounts of pollen. Allergens like these can cause excess mucus buildup. It can also make your inner nose tissue swell. This is problematic because you need a functioning nose to get clean air into your chest airways.
“When you are unable to breathe from your nose, you switch from nasal breathing to mouth breathing,” explained Eitches. “The lungs want warm, clean, humidified air from the nose — the air it cannot get from the mouth.” 
Additionally, if you are constantly having to rub or blow your nose to clear it out, you risk infection if your hands are unclean. Here are some tips to reduce your exposure to allergens:
- Clean frequently to remove dust from surfaces in your home
- Use a high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filter to remove allergens from the air
- Clean your air conditioning register frequently
- Wipe your pets off before they come in from outside to remove pollens from their fur
Eitches says you won’t see a dramatic improvement overnight, but gradually your body will improve, and will be better able to fight off infections .
Lung Exercises for Respiratory Health.
Deep breathing and lung exercises are another way to get air deep into your lungs. They’re not as effective as physical activity, but for people who are generally sedentary, they can help. This could be particularly helpful for people with mobility issues.
If you already exercise regularly, however, and you don’t have a chronic lung condition, deep breathing exercises may not offer much additional benefit. That being said, they also won’t cause any harm.
“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.” 
According to the British Lung Foundation, deep breathing can help clear the lungs after pneumonia .
In a viral video on Twitter, a UK doctor recommended that people with COVID-19 take a deep breath, hold it in, then release it. He suggested repeating this five times, then finishing the final round with a big cough.
Deep breathing can be helpful because it can get air into the deeper parts of the lungs. If these areas aren’t used, they close up and become at risk of infection. The issue with the UK doctor’s video, however, is that he was breathing through his mouth.
Ema Swingwood is chair of the Association of Chartered Physiotherapists in Respiratory Care. She says that deep breaths through the mouth are not helpful for COVID-19 patients, because they tend to have a dry cough. Instead, they should be breathing through their noses.
“The nose warms and moistens the air that you take in,” she says. “Breathing in dry air isn’t going to help you.” 
Deep Breathing Lung Exercise
Here is the proper way to perform a deep breathing lung exercise:
- Slowly take a deep breath in through your nose, allowing your belly to rise as you fill your lungs.
- Hold the breath for a few seconds.
- Exhale fully.
- Repeat a few times.
- On the last breath, force yourself to cough to bring up any secretions .
It is important to note that if you have COVID-19, forcing a cough at the end may not be helpful, since most patients have a dry cough. Levy says that this is a good exercise to use as a preventative measure to decrease your risk of pneumonia and infection. It’s a simple thing you can do for lung health if you’re not exercising.
Pursed Lip Breathing
Pursed lip breathing can also be beneficial. Here is how to do this lung exercise:
- Sit up straight — good posture can help promote lung movement.
- Breathe in deeply through the nose in a slow, controlled fashion.
- Purse the lips — they should be almost touching, as when making a “kissing” face.
- Breathe out through pursed lips — ideally, the exhalation should be twice as long as the inhalation was .
The American Lung Association recommends belly breathing lung exercises. This can help strengthen the diaphragm muscle, which helps you take a deep breath:
- Rest a hand or a lightweight object on the stomach.
- Breathe in slowly through the nose, and note how far the stomach rises.
- Then breathe out through the mouth.
- Breathe in through the nose, this time trying to get the stomach to rise higher than it did with the previous breath.
- Exhale, and try to make each exhalation two or three times as long as each inhalation.
- Periodically, roll the shoulders forward and backward and move the head from side to side to ensure that the exercise is not contributing to tension in the upper body .
The American Lung Association recommends practicing pursed lip breathing and belly breathing for about five to ten minutes every day.
Lung Exercises: The Bottom Line
It is important to remember that none of these techniques- exercise, clearing mucus, reducing allergens, or doing lung exercises- will actually prevent you from getting COVID-19. What they will do is reduce your risk for severe illness if you do get sick.
Stop the Spread of COVID-19
For this reason, it is important to also continue doing everything you can to reduce the spread of the virus. This means washing your hands frequently, staying six feet apart from others, and wearing a mask when you’re in public situations, eat well, reduce stress, and get adequate rest.
Globally, we have been having trouble containing the novel coronavirus, but if we all continue to do our part, we can protect ourselves and the vulnerable people around us.
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