by Steve Riggs, BS, RRT-NPS
Everyone needs good lung function in order to stay healthy, feel good, and oxygenate well. Many people in our society today have challenges that require specific attention in order to keep their lungs functioning adequately. But before we discuss how to create greater lung function and build lung strength, let’s review some structural considerations.
In our chest our lungs consist of different parts, or “lobes.” On the right side we have three lung lobes, and on the left side we have two. Our lungs are like large balloons, where oxygen and carbon dioxide exchange takes place. When we breathe, air from outside our bodies moves into our airway, travels through the trachea, and then into two tubes—one that supplies air to the lung on the right and one to the left. Our lungs are surrounded by what we call our chest wall. Our chest wall consists of our ribs and internal and external muscles that are important for inspiration (breathing in) and expiration (breathing out). At the bottom of our lungs there is a large, flat muscle called the diaphragm that extends from front to back and side to side and is our major muscle of breathing. When we take in a deep breath, the diaphragm moves downward, creating room for the lungs to expand.
Natural and normal breathing, especially deep breathing, is mostly done with the diaphragm and is often referred to as “belly breathing.” Other muscles, like the muscles around our ribs and up around our neck, are referred to as accessory muscles and play a large part in labored breathing, such as when we run or have shortness of breath. In order to have the best possible breathing both at rest and in situations where breathing is more difficult, we need to have a strong diaphragm and strong accessory muscles.
In order to improve lung function/lung capacity and to decrease mucus retention, we can work on good natural breathing, cough effectiveness, and deep breathing exercises. Get started by following the steps below:
- Obtain the best posture possible when working on breathing. Good posture provides the best chest space for a good volume of air and good airflow.
- Breathe through your nose when breathing normally. (Nose breathing is not for breathing if we are in labored breath or air hungry, such as during intense exercise.) Nose breathing ensures we have moist air getting to our lungs and uses carbon dioxide and nitric oxide store in our upper respiratory system to our advantage.
- Learn and practice belly breathing for normal breathing and relaxation. Lie down and put a book on your belly. Breathe in through your nose and use your diaphragm to breathe air down deep into your belly. Make the book go up as your belly expands. Breathe out slowly through your mouth, and make the book go down as you push the air out with your belly.
- Become aware as much as you can of when you are breathing through your nose and down into your belly.
- Do your lung exercises. If you have a lung exerciser use it to breathe out against if it is an expiratory resistance device; or use an incentive spirometer to breathe in as deeply as you can with a medium flow breath, hold your breath for 3 to 5 seconds, then breathe out slowly.
- Coughing: practice taking in a good deep breath as outlined above, hold it for a few seconds, and then make a good strong cough out from your belly to loosen any retained secretions or for coughing when you are sick.