Breathing exercises can help make your lungs more efficient and may be beneficial for reducing the impact of COVID-19 before, during, and after a confirmed diagnosis.

The breathing exercises we outline in this article will not prevent COVID-19, but they may help lessen the severity of symptoms affecting your respiratory system. They are also helpful for relieving stress you may be feeling during this pandemic.

According to a 2018 review, there is evidence that slow breathing techniques affect the parasympathetic nervous system, which can drive our “fight or flight” response in times of stress and also help calm us down.

Additionally, the review found slow breathing to be associated with reduced anxiety, depression, anger, and confusion.

However, the authors note that more research needs to be done to investigate how effective slow breathing techniques are when it comes to the parasympathetic nervous system, as opposed these techniques combined with other methods (such as meditation).

Another study from 2017 looked at diaphragmatic breathing (which is another way to describe deep breathing exercises) and found that it has the potential to improve cognitive performance and reduce the impact of stress.

While more studies need to be done, in addition to helping your lungs become more efficient, breathing exercises have the potential to help you deal with the physical and mental impact of stress, as well as increase relaxation.

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 present with mild, moderate, or severe COVID-19.

People who get very sick from this viral infection 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 the 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 develop COVID-19 after contracting SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes the infection.

COVID-19 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.

Other ways that deep breathing can help, include:

  • getting oxygen deep into the lungs, which helps you clear out mucus and other fluids.
  • strengthening the diaphragm, a major respiratory muscle located under the lungs
  • increasing lung capacity by bringing much-needed oxygen into your bloodstream
  • helping you feel calmer, 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, help strengthen your lungs, which may reduce COVID-19’s impact on your respiratory system.

A 2019 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 do 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 the air in your lungs slowly.
  5. Try to exhale for a longer number of counts than you inhaled.
  6. Repeat several times.
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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
  • 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 contract the coronavirus that causes the viral infection.

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 you may have 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 resolve 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, exercising may worsen your symptoms.

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 uses deep breathing and slow movements, improved pulmonary function and increased lung capacity in people with COVID-19.

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Illustration by Yaja’ Mulcare

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.
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If you are living with long-haul COVID-19, 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 the symptoms of long COVID. They may also help reduce ongoing stress and anxiety caused by COVID-19 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.
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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.
  7. Once your lungs feel full, exhale while humming. Make sure to keep your lips closed.
  8. Repeat for several breaths.
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Most people who contract SARS-CoV-2 and develop COVID-19 make a full recovery, often within a few weeks. Serious cases of the viral infection 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 can help improve the efficiency of your lungs.

Breathing exercises may induce a feeling of calm — an important part 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 talk with your doctor about the best time to start exercising again if you’re recovering from COVID-19.