A lingering cough could be a sign of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Other symptoms of this serious condition include shortness of breath, wheezing and lots of phlegm. While smokers and ex-smokers are especially prone, people exposed to lung irritants like air pollution are also vulnerable, says Donald Rollins, MD, associate professor in the pulmonary division at National Jewish Health in Denver. “You could be in the early stages and not have a clue,” he says. Make sure to get checked out by a doctor.
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Your Action Plan
“By the time we hit our forties, we often become breathless after racing up stairs, running to the gate to catch a flight or having sex,” says Moreno. “But aging doesn’t cause breathlessness. If you walk, jog, swim or bike regularly—and do not smoke—you have enough respiratory capacity to breathe easy throughout your life.” For further protection, do as much as you can to prevent colds or flu, which could lead to lung infections (e.g., wash your hands frequently). And try to maintain a healthy weight. “Carrying extra pounds in your torsoand abs makes it harder for your diaphragm to expand. It’s as if someone were sitting on your stomach,” says Moreno.
Exercise your chest muscles
Strengthening the muscles that stretch from your neck to your collarbone and out to the ends of your shoulders—the ones that lift when you inhale deeply—can make breathing more efficient, says Marie Budev, MD, medical director of the lung and heart-lung transplant program at the Cleveland Clinic. She recommends 20 minutes of hand pedaling a day with a $50-to-$70 mini cycling machine you can pick up at a sporting goods store. Any arm-strengthening exercise will also work.
Avoid outdoor and indoor pollution
Steer clear of any place filled with smoke, air pollution or chemicals, Moreno counsels, and don’t exercise outdoors on bad air-quality days (the faster you inhale, the more pollutants you breathe in). And if you cook on a gas stove, protect yourself from the high pollution levels it produces by cooking on the back burner and turning on an over-the-range hood.
Practice deep breathing
Several studies suggest that doing yoga regularly can improve your lung capacity, and the benefit seems to stem mainly from its breathing exercises, according to a recent review in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine. Moreno recommends doing a simple exercise called straw breathing a few times a week. Start by putting a straw in your mouth. Then “pinch your nose and keep your lips sealed around the straw. Breathe for one minute. If you feel dizzy, stop,” he says.
Additional reporting by Norine Dworkin-McDaniel.
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