How breathing exercises help Covid recovery
Covid-19 is a respiratory infection that can significantly affect the lungs, so it’s only natural that some Covid patients are finding relief from breathing exercises as a therapeutic part of recovery. Dr Bushra Mina, a section chief of pulmonary medicine, says Covid breathing exercises can improve endurance and lung function, and even combat the fatigue, that can all result from a Covid-19 infection.
But also, say some experts, proactively practising some breathing exercises can be a meaningful way to stay well, whether you’d had Covid yet or not. “We want patients not just to take a deep breath every now and then, but to have a routine practice,” Dr Mina says. Even if you haven’t had Covid, it’s possible the right breathing exercises can boost your immune system and increase your chances of staying healthy.
Research backs this up. One November 2021 published in the peer-reviewed journal, Clinical Rehabilitation, looked at the effects of breathing exercises and strength training over 14 days among 77 patients who’d had active Covid. Breathing exercises were the more effective of the two approaches at improving fatigue and aerobic capacity (the ability to engage in cardiovascular activity).
Covid breathing exercises – who should do them?
The type of Covid breathing exercises you do depends on how severe your infection is (or was) and where you are in your convalescence. “It’s very individualised,” says Dr Mina. “It depends if you’re walking around, lying in a bed or sitting in a chair, as well as your body mass index, neurological deficits, and more.”
Someone who is still bedridden with symptoms likely needs guidance from a pulmonologist or respiratory therapist. People with ongoing symptoms from “long Covid” are usually referred to pulmonary rehabilitation, where they work with specialised therapists, says Carl Hinkson, a respiratory therapist.
“Not all SARS-Cov-2 [the virus that causes Covid] infections are created equal,” adds Talia Pollok, DPT, a critical and acute care physical therapist and board-certified clinical specialist in cardiovascular and pulmonary physical therapy. “But any type of breathing exercise or breathing pattern retraining is generally safe for anyone to do at home.”
That said, especially if you’ve had Covid, it’s important to assess any lung damage and consult a respiratory therapist to pick the exercises that are best suited for you while you’re recovering at home, says Dr William Checkley, PhD, an associate professor of medicine in pulmonary critical care.
One type of breathing exercise stands out as particularly helpful: diaphragmatic breathing, or deep breathing from your diaphragm in the abdominal region. The lungs don’t have any innate muscles to help with the movement of air in and out, explains Dr Checkley. Instead they rely on the diaphragm, which is the muscle right below your lungs.
Think of deep breathing as training your diaphragm muscle – which, after all, is a muscle many of us don’t actively train, says Hinkson. “You’re training the muscle to be bigger, like doing curls for your bicep,” he adds.
Diaphragmatic breathing also aids the accessory muscles, which help expand the rib cage, Dr Checkley explains.
Also importantly, this deep belly breathing signals your brain to calm you down. “When they’re stressed or anxious or have some modicum of lung disease, most people have breathing patterns that are more in the upper chest and out through the mouth,” explains Pollok. It’s part of the fight or flight response, and breathing from your abdomen helps pull you out of the reaction.