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. Because lung function decreases as you age, staying active is especially important for older Americans. Studies show exercise can slow that decline and boost lung function.
“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.'”
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.
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.
Deep breathing exercises are another way to get air deep into your lungs and clear secretions. “Some older adults are deathly afraid of feeling ‘short of breath,’” Casciari says. “I have to convince them that it’s a good thing.” Although they’re not as effective as physical activity, Deep breathing exercise are better than doing nothing for people who are sedentary. 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.”