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Exercises to Improve Lung Function in Asthmatics

author image Lauren Ditzian
Lauren Ditzian, LMFT, is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in Northern California. Originally from Madison, CT, Ditzian studied philosophy at Brown University and earned a master's degree in somatic psychology at The California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco. For the last four years she has worked at expressive arts centers and community mental health agencies in Northern California.

Approximately 300 million people worldwide suffer from asthma, and the numbers continue to rise. There is no known cure for asthma, but in many cases the symptoms can be controlled with proper intervention. Breathing exercises can be an effective complementary non-pharmacological approach to reducing symptoms and increasing quality of life for asthmatics. Such exercises include techniques to modify breathing patterns as well as reduce stress and bring more awareness to the mechanics of breathing.

Safety and Effectiveness of Breathing Exercises

As reported in the October 2013 "Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews," an analysis of 13 breathing-exercise studies found that these exercises were well tolerated by participants, and no adverse effects related to the intervention were described. All studies that measured how breathing exercises influenced quality of life found some degree of improvement. When it came to actual lung function and a person's measured airflow, however, there were mixed results, with some positive but overall nothing conclusive. Always speak to your doctor before embarking on any complementary treatments.

Three Approaches to Breathing Training

There are three types of breathing exercises for asthma. “Breathing retraining” teaches new patterns of breathing -- breathing through the nose instead of mouth; breathing from the abdomen; slowing respiratory rate -- all with the aim of helping to control attacks and normalize abnormal breathing patterns. “Respiratory muscle training” conditions respiratory muscles for greater strength and endurance. “Musculoskeletal training” improves posture and increases flexibility in the chest cavity. Of these three techniques, breathing retraining is the one with the most research behind it. There is even some evidence to suggest lower bronchodilator medication (inhaler) usage with breathing retraining. There is no evidence that such training can reduce airway inflammation, however.

Three Methods: Papworth and Buteyko Methods and Yoga

The three most commonly used breathing methods are Papworth, Buteyko and yogic breathing. The Buteyko technique was developed in Russia in the 1950s by Konstantin Buteyko; the Papworth technique is based on work completed at Papworth Hospital in Cambridge, England in the 1960s. These techniques are fairly similar and both aim to normalize breathing patterns and reduce hyperventiliation, which is believed to contribute to asthma symptoms. The benefits of yoga in the treatment of asthma are based on an alternative approach of reducing associated anxiety and thereby reducing breathing difficulties as a secondary but significant benefit. Trained professionals are available to teach these methods and help you incorporate them into your routine.

Precautions and Seeking Help

Asthma continues to be a major public health threat, and it is extremely important to take its symptoms very seriously. Breathing exercises may be complementary to medical management but are not recommended in lieu of such management. Discuss these and other treatments with your doctor to ensure that they are an appropriate choice for you. Your doctor might be able to recommend which exercises would be best for you, ensure that you are practicing these exercises correctly and continue to monitor your asthma symptoms.

Medical advisor: Shilpi Agarwal, M.D.

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