Respiratory Health And Physical Activity

It is fairly common knowledge that strength training provides the body's muscles with a workout, but fewer know how to provide the lungs with a good workout, nor the positive respiratory changes that can occur as a result of exercise. For example, did you know that regular exercise can improve lung function and reduce your risk of chronic respiratory disease? The following article aims to answer some of the most commonly asked respiratory-related questions.

  • What is respiratory health?
  • What are the symptoms of poor respiratory health?
  • How does exercise help respiratory health?
  • What sort of exercise is best for respiratory health?

What is good respiratory health?

The term ‘respiratory health’ refers to the health of the organs and muscle tissue that make up our respiratory system, the system responsible for helping us breathe. Therefore, a prime example of someone with ‘good respiratory health’ would be an individual with healthy respiratory organs and muscle tissue, which would be demonstrated by their unrestricted breathing. Unfortunately, our respiratory health can be temporarily and permanently impaired by certain health conditions. Conditions like the common cold and coughs can temporarily impair our ability to breathe, although for most, these types of conditions are more inconvenient than they are harmful. However, chronic respiratory conditions can pose a greater threat to our health. According to the latest statistics, chronic conditions such as asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and lung cancer are present in roughly 540-545 million individuals worldwide.1 Alarmingly, research has identified chronic respiratory diseases as one of the leading causes of death, therefore highlighting how important it is for us to look after our respiratory health.2

Symptoms of respiratory health issues

Because there is a wide range of respiratory health issues, the symptoms an individual may experience can differ greatly depending on their condition. Below are some of the symptoms most common in those suffering from respiratory health issues.

  • Increased breathing rate
  • Coughing
  • Increased mucus production
  • Shortness of breath
  • Wheezing when breathing
  • Grunting
  • A cough that lasts longer than 8 weeks (chronic cough)
  • Chest pain or tightness
  • Changes in skin colour
  • Coughing up blood

How can exercise improve your respiratory health?

According to an article published in the journal Breathe, regular exercise (particularly aerobic exercises such as jogging, cycling, and swimming) can provide a wide range of respiratory benefits.3 Below are some of the main respiratory benefits that those who exercise will likely experience.

Work out for the lungs

Like weight training helps improve the strength of our muscles, aerobic-based exercises help us build a stronger and more efficient respiratory system. When performing aerobic exercises such as jogging, swimming, and cycling, the body's muscles require a higher amount of oxygen in order to create energy. Because of this, the lungs and the rest of our respiratory system have to work harder in order to ensure the muscles' oxygen demand is met. Over time, this ‘extra work’ forces the respiratory system to begin to adapt, meaning it becomes stronger and more efficient at dealing with oxygen. Below are some of the ways research has observed regular aerobic exercise improves our respiratory system.

  • Increased tidal volume (amount of air breathed in per breath)
  • Increased respiratory muscle strength
  • Increased capillary count (allowing more oxygen to diffuse into the bloodstream)
  • Increased breathing efficiency – the lungs inhale more air per breath, meaning those who exercise can inhale more oxygen with fewer breaths. 

Reduced Risk of Respiratory Disease

As well as increasing the strength and efficiency of our respiratory system, regular exercise also helps maintain its health. Numerous studies have found a clear link between regular exercise and a reduced risk of chronic respiratory disease. For example, a research paper published in the Journal of Physical Activity and Health found that those who regularly exercise over the course of their lifetime were ‘significantly’ less likely to develop COPD than those who do not.4

Management of Chronic Conditions

Exercise has also been shown to provide benefits to those who have already been diagnosed with some form of respiratory disease. Research has shown that regular exercise can reduce the frequency and severity of a patient’s symptoms, whilst also improving their quality of life.5 Furthermore, other studies have found that regular exercise can also greatly improve the life expectancy of those with chronic conditions like COPD, therefore further highlighting how beneficial exercise can be.6

Mental Health Boost

The psychological effect of chronic respiratory conditions is often overlooked. A 2017 study found that those diagnosed with chronic respiratory disease were more likely to develop anxiety and depression than those who did not have the condition.7 Fortunately, this is another area in which physical activity can help. An investigation found that regular exercise helped reduce the symptoms of depression and anxiety in those diagnosed with chronic respiratory disease, helping reduce their risk of also developing chronic psychological conditions like depression.5

What to look out for when exercising with respiratory health issues?

Before beginning any sort of exercise programme, those diagnosed with any form of respiratory disease should contact their healthcare provider in order to ensure that it is safe to do so. Whilst it is mostly safe for those with respiratory health issues to exercise, there are certain risks. To ensure you remain safe during your workouts, stop exercising immediately and contact your healthcare provider if you experience any of the following symptoms:

  • Dizziness
  • Feeling short of breath/struggling to breathe during exercise
  • Feeling disoriented
  • Experiencing chest pain and tightness
  • Sudden drop in athletic performance
  • Coughing up blood during or after exercise

Summary

Our respiratory system is vitally important to us, and for that reason alone should be taken care of. Based on the many studies conducted on the relationship between our respiratory health and exercise, it is clear that regularly performing aerobic exercises such as walking, jogging, cycling, and swimming can greatly benefit respiratory health, even in those who have already been diagnosed with some form of respiratory disease.

References

  1. Labaki WW, Han MK. Chronic respiratory diseases: a global view. The Lancet Respiratory Medicine [Internet]. 2020 Jun 1 [cited 2022 Sep 1];8(6):531–3. Available from: https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lanres/article/PIIS2213-2600(20)30157-0/fulltext
  2. Baptista EA, Dey S, Pal S. Chronic respiratory disease mortality and its associated factors in selected Asian countries: evidence from panel error correction model. BMC Public Health [Internet]. 2021 Jan 6 [cited 2022 Sep 1];21(1):53. Available from: https://doi.org/10.1186/s12889-020-10042-7
  3. Your lungs and exercise. Breathe (Sheff) [Internet]. 2016 Mar [cited 2022 Sep 1];12(1):97–100. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4818249/
  4. Hirayama F, Lee AH, Hiramatsu T. Life-long physical activity involvement reduces the risk of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease: a case-control study in Japan. J Phys Act Health. 2010 Sep;7(5):622–6.
  5. Spruit MA, Burtin C, De Boever P, Langer D, Vogiatzis I, Wouters EFM, et al. COPD and exercise: does it make a difference? Breathe (Sheff) [Internet]. 2016 Jun [cited 2022 Sep 1];12(2):e38–49. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4933612/
  6. Shu CC, Lee JH, Tsai MK, Su TC, Wen CP. The ability of physical activity in reducing mortality risks and cardiovascular loading and in extending life expectancy in patients with COPD. Sci Rep [Internet]. 2021 Nov 4 [cited 2022 Sep 1];11(1):21674. Available from: https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-021-00728-2
  7. Harrison SL, Robertson N, Goldstein RS, Brooks D. Exploring self-conscious emotions in individuals with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Chron Respir Dis [Internet]. 2017 Feb [cited 2022 Sep 1];14(1):22–32. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5720206/

George Evans

Bachelor of Science - BS, Sport and Exercise Science, University of Chester, England

George is a freelance writer with three years of writing experience and first class honours in Sport Science (BSc).

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