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Breath in. Breath out. We do it automatically, about 22,000 times per day. Until we can’t. For millions of adults and children, taking a deep breath is a struggle; for those who can breathe easily, the power of the breath is often taken for granted. Yet our lungs have a vulnerability not shared by other organs: Along with oxygen, breathing brings in airborne irritants, organisms, and toxins. As these substances increase in the environment, more people are dealing with poor lung and respiratory health.
An unhealthy respiratory system deprives our entire body of oxygen, a nutrient essential to the functioning of all our organs and tissues. A poorly functioning respiratory system compromises the strength of the immune system and puts us at risk for serious illnesses, such as asthma, bronchitis, emphysema, and coronary obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).
The respiratory system includes airways, the lungs and linked blood vessels, and muscles that enable breathing, such as the diaphragm. The lungs sit inside the rib cage and are the central organ in the respiratory system. They are made of spongy, elastic tissue that stretches and constricts as we breathe. The trachea and bronchi bring air into the lungs; they are made of smooth muscle and cartilage, which allows the airways to constrict and expand. The alveoli, tiny sacs deep within the lungs, facilitate the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide from the blood. If not cared for, our lungs are prone to infection and illness.
Exercise. The better your cardiorespiratory fitness, the easier it is for your lungs to keep your heart and muscles supplied with oxygen. It doesn’t matter if you dance under the moon, swim at sunrise, or walk through the woods…just get moving to a level that increases your breathing and heart rate.
Puff Off. Smoking is one of the most detrimental things you can do to your lungs. There’s no such thing as moderation. Smoking, second-hand smoke in the air, and smoke absorbed by clothes, furniture and car upholstery can damage lung tissue and increase your risk for lung cancer, emphysema, chronic bronchitis and other respiratory illnesses.
Breathe Clean(er). From second-hand smoke to industrial pollution, the levels of toxins in the air are astonishing. This is especially true if you live in, work, or travel to places without environmental protections for air quality. For information on local air quality and an explanation of the Air Quality Index (AQI), visit AIRNow (http://www.airnow.gov/). Reduce toxins and improve your air quality by: using air purifiers or whole house air filtration systems; following a schedule for replacing air filters in your heating/cooling system; and keeping plenty of plants in your living areas to remove certain chemicals from indoor air.
Breathe Right. Most of us don’t breathe well. Too often, respiration is shallow instead of deep, limiting the amount of oxygen taken into the body. Proper breathing begins with good posture – stand tall through the spine and chest. Additionally, practice abdominal breathing, in which you fill the belly – not just the chest – as you inhale.