We all know that eating good food and getting enough exercise are important parts of leading a healthy lifestyle, contributing to everything from weight loss to better heart health. But did you know that eating a balanced diet is also beneficial for your lungs? Or that there are specific exercises you can do that are particularly effective for helping your lungs work efficiently?
Starts at 60 spoke to Lung Foundation Australia’s Respiratory Care Nurse Amanda Curran to get the lowdown on how little changes to your diet and exercise regime can make a real difference to your lung health. That goes for people with perfectly healthy lungs as well as those living with lung disease.
And what better time to try out these small tweaks to your lifestyle than in winter, when colds and flus are more likely to strike, making good lung health more important than ever?
Research shows that being overweight or underweight can impair lung function, which is why eating a healthy, balanced diet is an important part of maintaining good lung health, Curran says. If you’re overweight or underweight, you may tire more easily, have increased breathlessness or have difficulty with everyday tasks, she says, adding that “it may also increase your risk of getting infections”.
Not to mention, food provides the body with energy, and Curran says it takes more energy to breathe when you have a lung condition. (You can check your personal lung disease risk by using Lung Foundation Australia’s free, online Lung Health Checklist.)
While no single food can reduce your risk of lung disease, following a healthy diet made up of the five main food groups can help keep your lungs healthy. Curran recommends incorporating a wide variety of colourful vegetables, legumes and beans, fruits, grains such as breads, cereals, rice and pasta, plus dairy products such as milk, yoghurt and cheese into your daily diet.
In fact, a study published in the journal JAMA Oncology in 2019 found that eating a diet high in fibre and yoghurt was associated with a reduced risk of lung cancer. And a study published in the BMJ in 2015 linked eating a diet rich in grains and low in red and processed meat with a lower risk of chronic lung disease.
If you’re living with a lung condition such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), Curran recommends getting in touch with a dietician or getting a referral from your GP to see a dietician who can help create a personalised plan to ensure you’re meeting your nutritional needs.
“As well as eating a varied and balanced diet, it’s important to drink adequate amounts of water,” she adds. Curran says you should aim for at least two litres of water per day, unless you have been advised otherwise by your doctor.
Healthy eating doesn’t have to be time-consuming either, the experienced nurse explains.
Curran recommends opting for nutritious and easy-to-prepare snacks and meals that only need a few ingredients and take little to no time to whip up. Stuck for ideas? She suggests a veggie-packed frittata that’s versatile, healthy and can be made with the leftovers from your fridge. Or try a healthy flatbread pizza with your favourite veggie toppings.
To understand how exercise can help your lungs work more efficiently, Curran says it’s important to understand the difference between lung capacity and lung function.
Lung capacity refers to the maximum amount of air that your lungs can hold, which is a feature you’d typically associate with being physically fit. Meanwhile, lung function refers to how well you’re breathing; for example, how quickly you can inhale and exhale air from your lungs and how effectively your lungs both oxygenate and remove carbon dioxide from your blood.
“If your lungs are either not able to hold enough air or move oxygen into the blood quick enough to meet the demand of your body, a common physiological response is being short of breath,” Curran says.
Shortness of breath, also known as dyspnoea, can be caused by a variety of health conditions affecting the lungs, heart or other health systems. For example, shortness of breath is a common symptom of COPD. But breathlessness can be associated with age, weight or just a lack of fitness, rather than a lung condition.
That said, while lung function may decline with age, Curran says if you’re experiencing any new, persistent and unexplained symptoms such as breathlessness, don’t ignore them. She advises using the Lung Health Checklist, which takes just two minutes to complete online, to help you better understand your symptoms.
“If you get out of breath more easily than others your own age, or experience any sudden difficulties in breathing, it’s really important that you discuss it further with your GP,” she says. “You can download your checklist results from the Lung Foundation Australia website and take it to your doctor to help you start a conversation about your lung health.”
Curran says getting regular exercise can improve lung function in those with or without a lung condition, and reduce breathlessness in people with chronic lung conditions. To put it simply, the more you exercise, the easier it’ll become to breathe freely while exercising. In fact, the Australian physical activity guidelines recommend that people aged 60 and above ensure they’re active on most days (preferably all), by doing at least 30 minutes of moderate activity.
Curran recommends doing aerobic exercises such as walking or swimming most days of the week, and strength-based exercises twice a week. Don’t know where to start on strength training? Curran recommends introducing squats, step-ups, wall push-ups and bicep curls into your routine.
To help you ease into strength training, Lung Foundation Australia has a Maintaining Movement Series of instructional videos for easy exercises you can do at home – all you need is your bodyweight and a little bit of space. Of course, it’s important to talk to your doctor before starting any new exercise program or if you are looking to increase your current level of activity, especially if you have an existing lung condition.
Older people who live a much more sedentary lifestyle might find embarking on an exercise program difficult, so Curran recommends some strategies to reduce your sedentary time. This can be as simple as finding ways to include incidental activities throughout your day, such as marching on the spot whilst the kettle is boiling, walking around the clothesline a few times when hanging the washing out or doing a few extra laps of the shopping centre. Remember to think of all types of activity as a chance to improve your health, she advises.
And if you’re not a fan of working out at home, Lung Foundation Australia also runs community-based exercise maintenance classes all over the country for people who have completed pulmonary rehabilitation. Lungs in Action classes provide exercise training for people with chronic lung conditions or heart failure.
“Lungs in Action is a great way to stay connected and keep on top of your exercise regime,” Curran says.
IMPORTANT LEGAL INFO This article is of a general nature and FYI only, because it doesn’t take into account your personal health requirements or existing medical conditions. That means it’s not personalised health advice and shouldn’t be relied upon as if it is. Before making a health-related decision, you should work out if the info is appropriate for your situation and get professional medical advice.
The symptoms of lung disease or lung cancer tend to creep up slowly and people often put them down to ageing or a lack of fitness. Breathlessness, a persistent cough or fatigue can be signs of something serious. Take Lung Foundation Australia’s new Lung Health Checklist to get to know your lungs and learn the warning signs and symptoms. Download your results to discuss with your GP.