A man with his eyes closed leans back against a tree and practices breathing exercises..

Usually, taking a breath isn’t something you stop and think about.

But during the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s easy to wonder whether a momen­tary shortness of breath could be a sign of illness. Those with conditions such as anxiety, asthma, and chronic obstruc­tive pulmonary disease (COPD) often have to focus on their breathing as well.

People with lung disorders should do breathing exercises regularly, according to the American Lung Association.

And while we’re still learning about the possible long-term effects of COVID-19, people dealing with its aftereffects may need rehabilitation programs to help them breathe better, says David Mannino, MD, director of the Pulmonary Epidemiology Research Laboratory at the University of Kentucky in Lexington.

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So what about the rest of us?

As automatic as breathing generally is, many people with healthy lungs could benefit from paying more attention to it, says Payel Gupta, MD, an asthma and allergy specialist in New York City and a spokesperson for the ALA. When we breathe, we bring in oxygen and expel carbon diox­ide. Various forms of deep breathing have been linked to cardiovascular benefits, including increased blood flow and improved blood pressure. Taking deep breaths can also help you manage stress and improve cognitive function.

While there has been little study on how helpful formal breathing exercises are for healthy people, they can certainly “remind us that it’s important to breathe and to be mindful of how you’re breathing,” Gupta says. “I think anyone can benefit.” 

3 Breathing Exercises

If you want to give breathing exercises a try, whether it’s to reduce shortness of breath associated with a condition such as asthma or simply to alleviate some stress and anxiety, here are several recommended by the ALA. Practice these for 5 to 10 minutes a day or as needed. “When you’re not feeling well, you can also use them to open up the airways more,” Gupta says.

Pursed lip breathing: Breathe in through your nose, then exhale for at least twice as long through pursed lips, as if you were flickering the flame of a candle.

This helps slow down your breathing. It can also help get additional air out of your lungs, which can build up in people with lung diseases such as emphysema and COPD, Mannino says. This can help you manage a feeling of breathlessness and make physical activity easier, says Grace Anne Dorney Koppel, president of the Dorney-Koppel Foundation, which has co-­founded 12 pulmonary rehabilitation clinics.

Diaphragmatic (belly) breathing: People who take short, shallow breaths might not make full use of this important muscle. To retrain yourself to use your dia­phragm more regularly, place a hand on your stomach so that you can feel it rise and fall. Breathe in through your nose, then out through your mouth for two to three times as long. This can help maximize the lung function you have.

“Box” breathing: When you need to relax or de-stress, try breathing in for a count of four, holding your breath for a count of four, exhaling for a count of four, and holding your breath again for another four count. Repeat this four-sided breathing method until you’re feeling calm. 

Help for Ongoing Problems

If you regularly have trouble catching your breath, a doctor can help determine whether it’s related to a disorder such as COPD or asthma, says Dorney Koppel, who herself received a COPD diag­nosis in 2001.

If you’re told you have a lung problem, a treatment program may involve medication and pulmonary rehabilitation, personalized therapy that includes workouts, breathing exercises, and education on medication use. People don’t regain lung function that they’ve lost to disease, Mannino says, “but you can maximize what you have.”

Dorney Koppel, who says she couldn't walk across a room that was 20 feet without stopping to catch her breath, was initially told she had three to five years to live. But after pulmonary rehab, she was able to control her illness. Now, almost 20 years later, she works out every day—and keeps up with her breathing exercises. 

Editor’s Note: This article also appeared in the November 2020 issue of Consumer Reports On Health.