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Exercise is beneficial for people of all ages looking to remain active and prioritize their physical and emotional health. Aside from the obvious benefits of exercise, it also positively affects lung health.

The impact of exercise on respiratory health looks different for every person, though, so it’s important that providers and patients understand the common effects of exercise on lung capacity and breathing quality, things to keep in mind for exercising safely and the risks for people with lung conditions and reduced lung function.


Strengthening the lungs


When walking, running, playing tennis or completing any other form of exercise, individuals strengthen their lungs by helping them more efficiently supply oxygen into the bloodstream and to the working muscles. The stronger the lungs become, the less likely someone is to become short of breath overtime during exercise.


Both aerobic (walking, running or jumping rope) and muscle-strengthening (weightlifting or Pilates) activities can benefit the lungs. Breathing exercises are particularly helpful when it comes to strengthening the diaphragm and training the lungs to breathe deeper and more effectively.


How exercise affects breathing quality


Breathing quality and rate changes during physical activity, increasing from around 15 breaths a minute during resting, to 40-60 a minute during exercise.


People often feel “out of breath” after exercise, but that is different from being “short of breath,” since a regular exercise routine helps individuals establish a large breathing reserve. When someone has reduced lung function, they may use up a large part of their breathing reserve, which is what causes the uncomfortable feeling of being out of breath.


At the end of any exercise or workout, it’s always important to cool down by progressively slowing activity and stretching any muscles that were used to allow breathing rate and quality to return to normal.


Risks and considerations for people with lung conditions


Regular exercise is important for everyone, including those with lung disease and other lung conditions, and will help the lungs and heart remain strong, allowing people to better perform daily tasks and ultimately feel better in their mind and body.


There are many barriers that may limit the ability of individuals with lung and chronic respiratory conditions to exercise regularly. People with conditions such as Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary

Disease (COPD), asthma, lung cancer and Adult Respiratory Distress Syndrome may experience significant challenges related to specific symptoms during exercise including:

  • Dyspnea: difficult or labored breathing
  • Muscle weakness
  • Pulmonary hypertension
  • Poor gas exchange and gas-trapping
  • Increased respiratory pressure associated with destruction of lung parenchyma (collection of air sacs/alveoli) and increased airway resistance


Many individuals with lung conditions may choose to work with supervising exercise professionals who can monitor for potential complications during physical activity, such as pulmonary-related issues and co-morbidities in COPD patients.


Developing a fitness routine can be scary or overwhelming for people with lung conditions because of certain symptoms and stressors related to their health, so it’s important that they consult with providers and others in their support system to explore exercise types that are safe and comfortable for them. Read this Exercise Right blog to learn more about the benefits of exercise for lung function, and special considerations for individuals with lung conditions.


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