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Breathing exercises can strengthen the lungs and may be beneficial for reducing the impact of COVID-19 before, during, and after it strikes.

The breathing exercises we outline in this article won’t prevent COVID-19, but they may help mitigate the symptoms affecting your respiratory system. They are also helpful for alleviating stress you may be feeling in the midst of this pandemic.

As we’ve come to know, COVID-19 presents differently in different people. Inflammation in the lungs and airways are common symptoms that make breathing difficult. These symptoms can accompany mild, moderate, or severe COVID.

People who get very sick from COVID-19 may experience pneumonia as a result. This causes the lungs to fill with fluid and mucus, making it even harder to breathe and get the oxygen your body needs to function.

If you have a condition such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) or moderate to severe asthma, you may already have reduced lung capacity and trouble breathing. These conditions cause chronic inflammation of the lungs, which can significantly worsen in people who get COVID-19.

COVID affects the entire respiratory tract, further obstructing airflow. It can trigger asthma attacks and cause acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS). Deep breathing exercises that clear the lungs and strengthen lung function may be especially beneficial for people with these conditions.

Breathing exercises get oxygen deep into the lungs, which helps you clear out mucus and other fluids.

During recovery, breathing exercises work to strengthen the diaphragm, a major respiratory muscle located under the lungs. It can also help increase lung capacity, bringing much-needed oxygen into your bloodstream.

Deep breathing exercises also help you feel calm, which may be beneficial for coping with long-term illness and recovery.

Breathing exercises do not prevent COVID-19 and should not be used in place of mask wearing, social distancing, or getting vaccinated.

Breathing exercises can, however, strengthen your lungs, which may reduce COVID-19’s impact on your respiratory system.

A systematic review and meta-analysis of 19 randomized controlled studies found that breathing techniques, such as pursed lips breathing, reduce shortness of breath. Breathing exercises also improved lung ventilation, which is the ability of the lungs to expel carbon dioxide and stale air.

Pursed lip breathing

Pursed lip breathing gets more oxygen into your lungs than regular breathing can. It also keeps your airways open longer by reducing the number of breaths you take per minute.

Follow these steps to try pursed lip breathing:

  1. Relax in a seated position with your neck and shoulder muscles unclenched.
  2. Breathe in slowly through your nose for several counts with your mouth closed. (Your nose warms and humidifies the air before it reaches the lungs — breathing in through your mouth does not accomplish this.)
  3. Before exhaling, purse your lips, as if you were going to blow out a candle.
  4. Keeping your lips pursed, breathe out all of the air in your lungs slowly.
  5. Try to exhale for a longer number of counts than you inhaled.
  6. Repeat several times.

Aerobic exercise

Any form of energetic exercise that makes you breathe more quickly is, in essence, a breathing exercise. This includes brisk walking, running, swimming, or any activity that increases heart rate and breathing rate.

Exercising regularly supports lung health. And healthy lungs may be your best defense against COVID-19, should you become infected.

COVID-19 is a respiratory illness caused by a coronavirus. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the most common symptoms of COVID-19 include:

  • fever, with or without chills
  • muscle pain
  • headache
  • sore throat
  • nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea
  • fatigue
  • congestion
  • runny nose

Or if you one of these symptoms or conditions:

  • severe respiratory illness with pneumonia or ARDS
  • cough
  • shortness of breath
  • difficulty breathing
  • inability to taste or smell

In people with acute COVID, symptoms usually start between 2 and 14 days after exposure and resolves within 2 weeks. Some people have lingering symptoms, such as shortness of breath and fatigue for a longer period of time.

If you have COVID-19, talk with your doctor before starting breathing exercises. If you have shortness of breath while resting, an irregular heartbeat, or chest pain, you may worsen your symptoms by exercising.

In addition to pursed lip breathing, other breathing exercises may also help while recuperating from COVID-19. An analysis of multiple studies by integrative medicine practitioners found that Qigong, a practice that utilizes deep breathing and slow movements, improved pulmonary function and increased lung capacity in COVID-19 patients.

Qigong belly breathing (diaphragmatic breathing)

  1. You can do this exercise while sitting or lying down.
  2. Relax your face, neck, jaw, and shoulder muscles.
  3. Rest the tip of your tongue behind your top front teeth.
  4. Straighten your back.
  5. Close your eyes.
  6. Breathe normally for several minutes.
  7. Place one hand on your chest and one on your lower abdomen.
  8. Breathe deeply through your nose, feeling your chest and ribs expand when you inhale. Your stomach should expand outward against your hand.
  9. Exhale, feeling your stomach gently contract inward.
  10. Breath slowly and deeply in this manner nine to 10 times.

COVID-19 long-haulers have chronic COVID. If you are a long-hauler, you may continue to have symptoms for weeks or months after infection. These symptoms vary but can include:

  • shortness of breath
  • trouble breathing
  • inability to exercise
  • brain fog
  • cough
  • reduced or no sense of taste or smell
  • muscle or joint aches and pains
  • chest pain
  • headache
  • occasional fever

Breathing exercises may help improve lung function in long haulers. They may also help to reduce ongoing stress and anxiety caused by COVID symptoms.

Yawn to a Smile

This breathing exercise opens up the muscles in the chest, which allows the diaphragm to fully expand. It also strengthens the arms and shoulder muscles.

Here’s how to do it:

  1. Sit upright with a straight back.
  2. Stretch your arms up to shoulder height. You should feel the muscles in your back stretching.
  3. While your arms are at shoulder height, open your mouth wide, as if you were yawning.
  4. Bring your arms back to rest on your thighs, while turning your yawn into a smile.

Humming while exhaling

Humming, such as the chanting of “om” in yoga, can help pull oxygen into the lungs with each breath. Many also find it can be calming.

Here are the steps for this exercise:

  1. Sit upright with a straight back.
  2. Place each hand on the sides of your lower abdomen.
  3. Keep your lips closed and gently rest your tongue on the roof of your mouth.
  4. Breathe deeply and slowly through your nose, keeping your lips closed and your tongue in position.
  5. Allow your fingers to spread wide on your stomach as it expands.
  6. Keep your shoulders relaxed. Do not let them rise up.
  7. Once your lungs feel full, exhale while humming. Make sure to keep your lips closed.
  8. Repeat for several breaths.

Most people who get COVID-19 make a full recovery, often within a few weeks. Serious cases of COVID can take a month or longer to completely resolve.

Rebuilding lung capacity can help aid your recovery, whether or not you had complications such as pneumonia or were placed on a ventilator.

Breathing exercises deepen each breath, improving the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the lungs. This improves overall lung capacity.

Breathing exercises also induce a feeling of calm — a valuable component of recovery and quality of life.

If you’re using breathing exercises to help with your recovery, don’t rush it. You may have to start slowly and build up to multiple repetitions during the healing process.

Aerobic exercise can also help strength your lungs significantly. Just make sure to go slow and not overdo it.