How Strong Are Your Lungs? Why Capacity Matters

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Image credit: www.istockphoto.com/portfolio/Natali_Mis

When sitting quietly at home, relaxed but not sleeping, you typically only use part of your lung capacity. On the other hand, when you take an intentional deep breath or when you’re exercising, you using a greater portion of that capacity – and you can feel the difference between an ordinary shallow breath and a deep one. Still, most of the time our lung capacity isn’t especially important. For those recovering from COVID-19, who may have significant lung damage, however, increasing lung capacity can make all the difference.

So, how exactly do you increase your lung capacity, especially when you can’t exercise? These 5 simple steps can help you build lung strength, whether you’re coping with post-COVID lung damage or simply taking preventative measures.

Check Capacity With A Spirometer

In order to get a sense of what your lung capacity is now, the best thing you can do is to check how deeply you can breathe in by measuring your breaths with an incentive spirometer. A simple device featuring a tube to breathe into and another section indicating volume, an incentive spirometer can help patients identify their baseline and track their progress, especially as they do additional activities to strengthen their lungs.

On average, lung capacity decreases after age 35; the lungs finishing developing between the ages of 20 and 25. At peak capacity, a man’s lung can generally hold about 1.5 pints of air while women’s lungs are smaller, at about 0.6 to 0.8 pints. And while athletes may have significantly greater lung capacity, individuals with lung disease or damage can suffer seriously reduced capacity.

Treat Underlying Issues

Though there isn’t yet enough research to draw any clear conclusions, there is some evidence suggesting that people who have had COVID-19 may develop asthma, even if they have no prior history of respiratory problems. That means, when addressing lung capacity issues, patients need to proactively address environmental issues that could aggravate asthma symptoms. Doing so may not increase your lung capacity, but it can decrease airway irritation that makes it hard to breathe or do respiratory exercises.

Work With A Respiratory Therapist

Many patients who experienced severe COVID-19 symptoms then spend a long period undergoing rehabilitation with a range of professionals including occupational and physical therapists and respiratory therapists. These specialists each contribute different skills to the rehabilitation process, and they’re consistently learning new skills to support their patients, whether through first-hand experience of continuing education courses. Respiratory therapists play a particularly important role in rehabilitating patients who have spent time on ventilators, suffered ARDS due to COVID, or developed pulmonary embolisms.

Practice Breathing Deeply

Breathing doesn’t seem like something you would need to practice – until you suddenly can’t breathe very well while sitting still or otherwise unoccupied. Well, for those recovering from COVID, those passive periods are the ideal time to practice different breathing exercises. Diaphragmatic breathing and breathing through pulsed lips can both help you build capacity, and you can measure your progress using the incentive spirometer.

Lung packing is another style of breathing you can practice to increase your lung capacity, especially as you start to feel better. This approach is well-established, as it’s used by both free divers and people with serious health conditions like muscular dystrophy and some spinal cord injuries, in the event of ventilator failure. The approach uses muscles in the tongue and cheeks to force extra air into the lungs. Free divers have found this approach can increase their lung capacity by as much as a liter, though the average person practicing lung packing won’t see (or require) substantial gains.

Check Your Nutrition Status

COVID-19 can cause loss of appetite, GI complications, and weight loss, and any one of these can impact your lung capacity in surprising ways. In particular, vitamin D deficiency is associated with poorer lung function – and a lot of otherwise healthy people have vitamin D deficiencies. You can increase your vitamin D intake by consuming more egg yolks, fish, and red meat, carefully increasing sun exposure, or by taking a vitamin D supplement. Increasing your intake of red meat can also prevent iron deficiency anemia, ensuring better overall oxygenation.

Explore Elevation Training

There are several groups known to have much greater lung capacity than average, such as swimmers and divers and mountain climbers, as well as those who live at high altitudes. Some musicians also have greater lung capacity, enabling them to play complex pieces on woodwind and brass instruments. Luckily, you don’t have to take up such hobbies to increase your own lung capacity. Instead, consider trying out an elevation training mask.

How do elevation training masks work? If you were actually at elevation, you would get less oxygen with each inhalation; these specially valved masks reduce the amount of air you can inhale in a given breath, forcing your lungs and diagram to work harder to reach capacity. While you’ll see some gains simply from wearing such a mask, regularly exercising in an elevation training mask can help you significantly increase overall lung volume, but be advised, this isn’t the kind of activity you’ll want to try early on in your recovery. Instead, using an elevation training mask is better for increasing lung capacity as a means of strengthening your lungs prior to becoming sick.

Slow And Steady

All kinds of cardiovascular activity can help rebuild lung capacity, but it’s important not to push your body too hard or try to make progress too quickly. Slow walking can be a lot for those who have been ill, and many fare better with seated activities like using a stationary or recumbent bicycle or an arm bike. The fact is, even very gentle movement is a workout when you have lung damage, but you will see progress if you are consistent in your efforts.

Many doctors believe that building lung capacity even before falling ill can help patients survive and recover from COVID-19, but it’s even more important to focus on lung strength after illness. In the same way that patients who have been serious ill need to rebuilt their stamina when engaging in physical activity, COVID forces patients to redevelop their lung capacity in the wake of severe trauma.

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