Can Exercise Strengthen the Lungs?

One of the best ways to effectively lose weight and live a healthy and productive life is a combination of proper nutrition, regular exercise, stress reduction, and adequate sleep. Exercise has particularly positive effects on the heart and lungs. For example, exercise strengthens our lungs by preventing obstructive lung diseases, restrictive disorders, and abnormalities of the blood vessels.

Key takeaways:

Everyone knows by now that exercise strengthens muscles, helps us maintain a healthy weight, and gives our bodies more energy by boosting stamina. Therefore, our hearts and lungs work harder than normal during exercise. It stands to reason that our their muscles get stronger the harder we work them. As a result, our lungs strengthen to be able to supply our bodies with the necessary oxygen our bodies need.

Lung capacity

One of the best ways to determine lung capacity is by using a diagnostic tool called pulmonary function testing or PFTs. This test is effort-dependent, meaning you have to be able to use your ability to inhale and exhale to complete the test.

Both diminished-forced expiration or FEV1 and forced vital capacity or FVC are used to measure whether there is diminished lung capacity that would warrant further testing. Also, measurement of the oxygenation of the blood (arterial blood gas testing) and chest imaging provide more information, such as whether there are pleural processes or masses, or nodules.

All of these diagnostic tests are affected by our normal or abnormal lung function. Our lungs are designed to move air in and out with the primary goal of exchanging gases, specifically taking in oxygen and expelling carbon dioxide to keep our tissues and organs healthy. Regular physical exercise is one of the primary methods of maintaining lung function and wellness.

Ventilation – how we breathe?

The respiratory system is not one system at all. Instead, ventilation is comprised of three independently functioning components, including the lungs and airways, the neuromuscular system, and the chest wall.

The mass of respiratory muscles is in the chest wall, but it is also aided by the diaphragm, abdominal muscles, and even the heart itself. The force that these muscles create is part of the neuromuscular system.

All three ventilation components have mechanical properties that manage two main objectives: the enclosed volume of the lungs and airways and the rate of change of that volume or flow. With these two goals in mind, it is clear why using and strengthening these vital elements of breathing with physical exercise can improve our lungs and how we perform ventilation to keep our bodies in the best shape.

Static forces of breathing

The way in which gas exchange occurs in the lungs involves two factors. First, there is surface tension at the air-liquid interface between the alveoli wall lining fluid and the gases in the lungs. Second, the lungs are elastic, and they recoil.

The end result is that the lungs require positive pressure to stay inflated. This is called the elastic recoil pressure of the lungs, and it increases with lung volume.

Our lungs become stiff at high volumes, so relatively small breaths can greatly change the pressure in our lungs. On the other hand, the lungs are more compliant or less stiff at lower volumes, which includes our regular breathing.

As we age or develop other problems, such as obstructive airway disease, the lungs retain some air in the alveoli. We can avoid some of this poor exchange of gases with regular physical exercise.

In addition, the elasticity of the chest wall is different from that of the lungs. While our lungs tend to try to deflate fully with expiration, the chest wall remains more compliant. The chest wall and lungs work together, meaning how we breathe is a combination of the elastic recoil of the lungs and the transmural pressure exerted by our chest wall.

By strengthening our chest wall with regular physical exercise, we can maximize our volume-related mechanics of breathing. The difference between full and minimal lung inflation is called lung vital capacity. This is called lung statics, meaning the mechanical properties don’t change.

The maximum lung vital capacity is about six liters or about three large bottles of soda. We strive to increase or maintain our lung vital capacity by performing physical exercise since our lung vital capacity begins to decrease at about age 35.

Dynamic forces of breathing

Dynamic airflow properties of the lungs affect our ability to ventilate or breathe in and out. The work of breathing can be diminished because of many factors, including illness, trauma, or disease.

The concept of the flow of gases through our lungs is like thinking of a gas or fluid in any tube. To maintain the airflow of gases, there has to be a pressure gradient that falls along the direction of airflow. The magnitude of the airflow is made up of the flow rate and the frictional resistance to the flow.

When we breathe normally, the pressure gradients driving inspiration and expiration are relatively small, with little resistance from the normal airways. However, airflow is restricted for two reasons when we exercise or breathe out rapidly.

  1. Frictional resistance of the lungs and airways because of the treelike branching. The individual airways get smaller as the air travels to the periphery of the lungs.
  2. A phenomenon called dynamic airflow limitation occurs because the bronchial airways are collapsible, not rigid.

Airflow is constant in the airways, but the velocity of the airflow is higher in the central airway than in the peripheral airways. We have to work harder to exhale because the airflow has to gain speed.

We get some help with producing the energy required to exhale by a phenomenon called the Bernoulli effect. The same effect keeps an airplane airborne or a lifting force. As we exercise, we take advantage of this phenomenon so that we are not limited by how much air we can breathe.

Healthy individuals use only a small amount of energy to balance the elastic (volume-related) and the dynamic (flow-related) changes which we use to overcome to breathe. However, the work of breathing can increase dramatically due to metabolic requirements from physical exercise.

The rate of breathing changes with our need to eliminate carbon dioxide, not get more oxygen. In fact, during physical exercise, our respiratory rate can increase more than twenty times normal.

With regular exercise, our bodies become accustomed to more efficient breathing so that there is only a modest increase in our respiratory rate, so we are not as out of breath. Instead of breathing more, we increase the amount of air we take in and exhale.

Of course, even high-performance athletes, when they are exercising at the highest levels, combine both deep breathing and increased respiratory rates. Overall, physical exercise is one of the best things you can do for the health of your lungs.



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