Laurel remembers that the air her kids ran around in was much cleaner and fresher than the air her grandkids now breathe in deeply as they play. Laurel has lived in the Bay Area most of her life, first in San Francisco and now in Marin. When she was a teenager, she was diagnosed with asthma and often had to sit out while her friends played outdoors because joining in left her dangerously short of breath.
Over the years, Laurel has become very sensitive to the levels of pollutants in the air. The Bay Area has one of the highest levels of particulate matter in the nation, which can be harmful to anyone, but for older adults and children in particular, leading to allergies, asthma, and other breathing problems. And, unfortunately, our air quality has only gotten worse with the extended drought. Some days, when Laurel reads that air pollution levels are high, she’ll bring her grandkids inside so as not to expose them. More and more often, she’s unable to play with them as she’d like because her own breathing feels too weak.
But there’s hope for improving Laurel’s lung function, just as there is hope for cleaning up our air—and both problems can be helped by our everyday choices and actions.
A Bay Area Trend of Caring for Our Health and Our Environment
Local Bay Area efforts to share rides, use public transportation, and follow restrictions on wood burning all play important roles in reversing some of the current damage to our atmosphere. Spare the Air is a San Francisco-based program that keeps the community up-to-date on the current pollutant levels and educates us in ways we can act to help heal our environment.
Likewise, the proactive steps we take to respond to our bodies’ challenges can go a long way to restoring our own energy and resilience. As we age, it becomes even more important that we practice exercises that are right for our bodies; inactivity can speed up the aging process in all of our bodily systems. Our ability to breathe fully and deeply is especially deserving of our attention because this supply of oxygen supports everything the body does.
As we age, our muscles and bones begin to weaken, and the resulting changes to the ribcage prevent the lungs from expanding and contracting all the way. At the same time, changes to the lung tissue, nervous system, and immune system can also impede healthy respiratory function, especially with the added complication of having to filter environmental pollutants. But it’s possible to reverse the trend of shorter breaths and limited energy for you or your aging loved one. A doctor can help you understand the causes of these breathing problems and offer guidance to address these problems in a comprehensive, whole-bodied way.
But, there are also simple exercises an aging loved one can do to strengthen their muscles and bones—and all other systems in turn.
Exercises to Help Build Resilience in the Bay Area Environment
At-home exercises help older adults feel like they are really playing an important role in their own health, and their improved breathing can make way for other wonderful benefits like increased energy and a greater ability to be involved in the things they love—family, community, physical activities, and even more independence day to day. These are great activities to practice with your aging loved one as a caregiver. Just like the air we share here in the Bay Area, we can learn to compassionately care for our bodies as a community too.
Relax Your Muscles to Give Your Lungs Freedom of Movement
Relax your body, especially through the shoulder, chest, and belly. Tension can be another barrier to deeper breathing, so relaxation itself is a valuable practice. And it’s one we often forget. When you feel constriction in your breath, try to make a habit of slowing down and practicing relaxation through these commonly tense areas in the upper body. This can help to reverse the habit of tensing up further when you feel the uncomfortable, perhaps frightening, tightness in your breath. It might also help to close your eyes and remember that you’re showing yourself great compassion by slowing down and being aware of what you’re feeling—and choosing to care for your respiratory health.
Gain More Awareness and Control over Your In-Breaths and Out-Breaths
In this way, you slow the breath down and maintain open airways for longer periods of time.
- From a comfortable seated position, bring your attention to the flow of your breath.
- Breathe in through your nose, and try to make these inhales last for a count of about 2–3.
- For your exhale, purse your lips (as if to whistle) and slowly release the air for 4–6 counts, allowing stale carbon dioxide to release completely.
- Continue your inhales and exhales this way for about 5–10 minutes, and try to practice once a day to build up more strength and function over time.
Keep Your Diaphragm Active and Strong
The diaphragm is your body’s most effective muscle for healthy breathing. In order to build up strength, you can practice breaths that intentionally engage the diaphragm muscle.
- Lie down or lean back comfortably in your seat, resting one hand on your chest and one hand on your belly.
- Relax your abdominal muscles. With your inhales, try to get your belly to rise more than your chest as you breathe in through your nose.
- With your exhales, very gently press on your belly to encourage the diaphragm’s engagement. Breathe out through your mouth with your lips pursed to slow down the movement of air.
- This can be tiring if your diaphragm is out of shape, so practice this breathing pattern for only about 5–10 minutes a day, or as long as it’s comfortable.
Stretch out the Muscles in Your Torso
Flexibility here can mean more ease of movement for your lungs.
- Sit or stand, and bend your arms to touch your shoulders (or the sides of your head, if more comfortable). Begin to exhale, and draw your elbows forward and toward each other, rounding and stretching your upper back. Then, slowly pull the elbows open and back a bit, so your chest expands and stretches. Practice this dynamic stretch for a full 5 breaths.
- Now, place your right hand on the top of your head, and bring your left hand to the edge of your chair or somewhere else to steady you. Reach your right elbow up toward the ceiling as your head and hand tip slightly to the left. You’re stretching long through the right side of your body. Hold for 2 or 3 breaths, and then release to find it on the other side.
Some of these exercises may work better than others for you. Listen closely to your body and its experience. Even though carefully challenging our respiratory muscles can be a good way to strengthen them, do not continue with an exercise if you are in pain, or you feel that it is restricting your breath too much in the moment. Instead, practice the first challenge of relaxation, and you may find that in time you are able to return to an exercise that was once out of reach.
As we continue to improve air quality as a community in the Bay Area by minimizing emissions with the cars we choose to drive, by carpooling, and biking, we can simultaneously strengthen our own bodies’ ability to breathe more deeply and live more fully. By avoiding physical activity when your breath feels challenged, your muscles can weaken even more. But by listening to your body and finding the gentle exercises that help you to build up endurance slowly, you’re on your way to the energy that can reconnect you to the people and activities that you love.
For more information on how you or an aging loved one can exercise the body, mind, and spirit, get in touch with Institute on Aging today. We are committed to empowering and inspiring individuals to create their optimal well-being.