Good News for Ex-Smokers: Running Can Help Heal Your Damaged Lungs

Running can help heal your lungs after you quit smoking.
Image Credit: VioletaStoimenova/E+/GettyImages

You've quit smoking. Congratulations! But now you may be asking how long it takes for your lungs to fully recover from smoking, and whether an exercise like running can help "clean" your lungs after smoking. Good news: Exercise can help heal your lungs.

The main function of the lungs is to deliver oxygen-rich blood to the rest of the body from the air you inhale and expel carbon dioxide when you exhale. Most healthy people take their lungs for granted because they don't have trouble breathing or performing daily tasks.

But smoking can deal a sometimes fatal blow to your lungs, impeding their ability to function properly and raising the risk for diseases such as emphysema, lung cancer and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), according to the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA).

Read more:Top 11 Ways to Quit Smoking

How Smoking Damages Your Lungs

You take in more than 7,000 chemicals when you inhale cigarette smoke, according to the FDA. This toxic brew includes carbon monoxide, which displaces the oxygen your blood needs, and acrolein, which can cause lung damage. Eighty percent of COPD cases are caused by smoking, and there's no cure for the disease. Smokers are also 20 times more likely to get lung cancer, the leading cause of cancer death for both men and women.

But here's the good news: Quitting smoking can help your lungs heal and, the FDA says, you won't need to wait long to see your health improve. Just 12 hours after quitting, the level of carbon monoxide in your blood normalizes, letting more oxygen circulate. Lung cancer risk drops by 50 percent 10 years after you stop smoking, while mouth and throat cancer risk also falls by 50 percent within five years.

Clean Your Lungs After Smoking

Running and other exercise can play an important role in helping ex-smokers get fit and heal their lungs, according to the National Cancer Institute. Exercise boosts blood flow, which was likely reduced by the smoking, delivering oxygen to your muscles. It also lowers your resting heart rate, which smoking can raise to dangerous levels. Plus, running and other vigorous exercise can help reduce the craving to light up, manage nicotine-withdrawal symptoms and reduce stress.

The lungs have a remarkable ability to recover after you quit smoking, says Panagis Galiatsatos, MD, a pulmonary and critical care physician who runs the Tobacco Treatment Clinic at Johns Hopkins Medicine in Baltimore.

You stop harming your lungs when you quit smoking, but the injured areas still remain like a scar on the skin, Dr. Galiatsatos says. But, he adds, the lungs are smart. "They will start to shunt blood away from the damaged parts of the lungs to the healthier areas. The damaged area begins to shrink while the healthier parts get healthier."

Because running boosts that blood flow, it can speed the recovery process. While damage to the lung tissue or inflammation of the airways may be permanent, that harm is mitigated by running, Dr. Galiatsatos says.

"Your lungs aren't likely to return to a 100 percent level," Dr. Galiatsatos says, "but a person can build endurance capacity to function as if they were 100 percent." As lung tissue heals, it can actually grow, he adds.

Start Running After You Quit

Most former smokers can start a running routine as soon as they'd like, Dr. Galiatsatos says. He offers the same advice he would give to nonsmokers: Warm up, start slowly and gradually build up mileage and endurance. You may worry that your running routine could be disrupted by chest congestion after quitting smoking, or coughing up tar after quitting smoking.

When ex-smokers first start to run, they may feel worse, Dr. Galiatsatos says. "You may start coughing to get the gunk out, but that's your lungs trying to heal," he says. He also says runners shouldn't neglect upper-body exercises, which help the lungs by improving chest muscles and capacity.

Dr. Galiatsatos cautions that people suffering from smoking-related diseases like COPD or emphysema shouldn't embark on a running regimen without first consulting their doctor. For these people, he recommends a more structured program of pulmonary rehabilitation.

Read more:The Beginner-Friendly Guide to Running

Is This an Emergency?

If you are experiencing serious medical symptoms, please see the National Library of Medicine’s list of signs you need emergency medical attention or call 911. If you think you may have COVID-19, use the CDC’s Coronavirus Self-Checker before leaving the house.
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