Best Exercises to Avoid COVID Complications
The outbreak of COVID-19 around the globe has re-introduced us all to the importance of respiratory health, and how quickly it can deteriorate. However, like most health conditions, poor respiratory health can be avoided. Below we lay out the concept of taking action through specific exercises to avoid COVID and improve respiratory health overall.
Watch the video with Dr. Belisa Vranich, or continue reading below.
How to Start
To start, it’s important to understand your physiology. While the heart is the most important muscle the body has, the second most important is the main muscle of respiration: the diaphragm.
In the 1950’s, The Framingham Heart Study came out, and suddenly the attention to heart health exploded. We started doing all kinds of “cardio” programs (and the requisite bad outfits that went along), and the low-fat/heart-healthy food industry (as misled as it was) erupted as well. Importantly though, the study included information on respiratory health, however we weren’t as concerned then- we weren’t in a respiratory crisis like we are now. People weren’t reporting feeling dyspnea or breathlessness to their doctors as frequently as they have been in recent years, and we assumed several erroneous things:
- You train your lungs at the same time as you exercise.
- You can’t change the size of your breath or the strength of your lungs.
- Breathing is something that will always be natural and perfect by definition.
We know these statements to be false, and now it’s time to focus on improving our breathing. Since the Framingham study, the health landscape has changed drastically, especially since late 2019. Taking care of our respiratory health, having “strong lungs,” is critical to our wellbeing.
Exercises to Avoid COVID
A dysfunctional diaphragm can be tied to issues such as lower back pain or gastric reflux, so working to strengthen your diaphragm can alleviate these chronic issues tied to poor respiratory mechanics. Additionally, improving your breathing function will help reduce your risk for other illnesses that affect the respiratory system.
Find Your Breathing IQ (From Dr. Belisa Vranich)
When thinking of how you breathe, there are two variables to consider – Location of Movement and Range of Motion.
Location of Movement (LOM):
- Where on your body do you feel the most movement when you breathe? What direction is it going in?
- What sort of a breather are you: Vertical, Horizontal, or a little of both, that is to say a Hybrid?
If you are puffing up your chest and shoulders are rising, you are a Vertical. If there is no activation of your neck and upper pecs (you can see this yourself by looking in the mirror) and the only expansion is between your nipples to your hips, you are a Horizontal. Most adults are pure Vertical Breathers or a Hybrid. Few, if any, are pure Horizontal Breathers without training.
Range of Motion (ROM):
You want to measure what’s called “excursion” or “respiratory amplitude.” You’ll be measuring 2 numbers, the expansion of your rib cage (in inches) at the peak of your inhale and the same measurement at the end of your exhale.
- Find the bottom of your front rib (it should be directly below your nipple).
- Loop a cloth measuring tape snugly around your mid-section at this height. Take a measurement of the circumference at your full inhale, then exhale completely and take that second measurement.
- Calculate the difference between the two numbers.
For some you may get no movement at all, for others it may be around 2-3 inch difference. Performing this simple test will give you an idea of how well you’re breathing. In general, the more ROM you get on each breath, and the more Horizontal your breath is, the higher your Breathing IQ.
With this knowledge, you can begin to train your lungs. If you are primarily a vertical breather, focus on not using your neck and shoulder to breathe – keep your shoulders relaxed and focus on widening on your inhale and narrowing on your exhale.
If your ROM needs work, this may be due to lack of strength, but often relates to poor mobility. Spend time on thoracic mobility and soft tissue work to help improve your rib cage excursion. Some examples of exercises you can do:
Exercise 1: Cat/cow stretch
Exercise 2: Sidelying thoracic rotation
Exercise 3: Child’s pose
Exercise 4: Lat Mobilization
Exercise 5: Pec Mobilization
If your LOM is primarily vertical, or you felt like you struggled with ROM due to weakness, then spend time on breathing exercises that improve your diaphragmatic excursion is key. To that end, check out this breathing drill that Dr. T talks about to help work on diaphragmatic breathing.