Yogi Breaths to Strengthen Your Lungs

Author: Fiona Callender

Even with healthy aging comes an inevitable steady decline in dynamic respiratory function. There is a reduction in alveolar area (the part of your lung that exchanges oxygen and carbon dioxide with your blood) starting at the age of 30, with a loss of about 4% per year after that (Bezerra et al., 2014). There is a marked decrease in pulmonary function, both reduced volume and respiratory muscle strength. The spring (compliance and elasticity) that allows your lung to expand and easily retract is less, well, springy (Bezerra et al., 2014). To make matters worse, sedentary lifestyle and inactivity only compound the problem by decreasing the force with which one can expire air. This puts individuals at risk of cardiovascular disease, thrombosis and lung cancer (Jakes et al., 2002). The good news is that for a while now physical exercises have been reported to help slow pulmonary capacity loss with aging (DeLorey & Babb, 1999).

Our new friends and colleagues in Norway who are working on the Generation 100 study (see article from our trip to Norway) just published a paper on respiratory function and aging (Hassel et al., 2015). They explain that while in a healthy young person the respiratory system is not a limiting factor for even the most strenuous exercise, it may be for elderly individuals. The respiratory system is structured in such a way that there is a huge reserve in terms of volume and function as well as diffusion capacity. This reserve, however, is reduced in older adults. Their flow rate versus volume curves appear more like someone suffering from chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder (COPD). Our friends in Norway demonstrated that this reduces VO2peak (maximal oxygen uptake) when pulmonary function falls below a certain threshold. Unfortunately, this threshold lies within normal limits of lung function for the elderly population. This explains why lung function can be a significant limiting factor for maximal physical exercise for many older adults. So if we want to breathe easy and be the Fast Twitch Grandmas racing our grandchildren in the park, what are we to do to maintain our respiratory function?

In a 2014 study conducted by Bezerra et al., yoga was found to be beneficial in enhancing the respiratory function in older individuals. The researchers recruited 36 women between the ages 54 and 68 and divided them into a yoga group and a control group. None of the women had been active for the past six months and had no history of pulmonary disease. The yoga group practiced yoga for 65 minutes, three times per week, for 12 weeks. The sessions consisted of a preparatory phase, a main phase and then a cool down. The prep phase was used as a warm up and consisted of 5 minutes of nasal respiratory exercises. The main phase had the yogis practicing 15 different poses with about 15 to 20 seconds on each pose and repeated for 50 minutes. The final 10 minutes was for relaxation and involved spontaneous breathing as the particiapants lay on their backs with their eyes closed. The practice of yoga puts emphasis on the breath as one holds and shifts between poses. There is a mindfulness to each breath.

The results of this study were quite motivating. Their main finding was that there were significant increases in pulmonary volumes and respiratory muscle strength in the group that practiced yoga. Resting heart rate and respiratory rate also decreased and there was an increase in the force with which the individuals could both inspire and expire. Overall, the study provided some pretty interesting food for thought for Fast Twitch Grandmas looking to get the most out of their exercising. Having better lung function could help you get more oxygen to the rest of your body and help you get the most out of your training.

As FTG writer Julia Basso discussed in a recent contribution “Yoga: a mind-body practice that improves the brain,” yoga, gaining popularity in the western world, has also been gaining popularity in the scientific sphere. Although in this piece I have mainly discussed the benefits of adding yoga into your life for your lung health, the well known benefits of strength, flexibility and balance are not to be forgotten! It is also being researched with regards to mental health and the brain. Julia Basso discussed the benefits that you could reap for your body and brain with the practice of yoga, specifically focusing in on brain changes with continued practice. It appears that practicing yoga (along with your fast twitch training of course!) could help your health in more ways than one.

Key Words: Aging, Yoga, Respiratory Function, Breathing

Bezerra, L. A., Fabrício de Melo, H., Garay, A. P., Reis, V. M., Aidar, F. J., Bodas, A. R., … & Jacó de Oliveira, R. (2014). Do 12-week yoga program influence respiratory function of elderly women?.Journal of human kinetics43(1), 177-184.

DeLorey, D. S., & Babb, T. G. (1999). Progressive mechanical ventilatory constraints with aging. American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine160(1), 169-177.

Hassel, E., Stensvold, D., Halvorsen, T., Wisløff, U., Langhammer, A., & Steinshamn, S. (2015). Association between pulmonary function and peak oxygen uptake in elderly: the Generation 100 study. Respiratory Research, 16(1), 156.

Jakes, R. W., Day, N. E., Patel, B., Khaw, K. T., Oakes, S., Luben, R., … & Wareham, N. J. (2002). Physical Inactivity Is Associated with Lower Forced Expiratory Volume in 1 Second European Prospective Investigation into Cancer-Norfolk Prospective Population Study. American journal of epidemiology156(2), 139-147.

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