Having strong enough lungs is just as important as having a mask to wear if you have to go outside. Though wearing a face mask (along with social distancing) is essential in slowing the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus, masks themselves can make it more difficult for you to breathe, especially if you have preexisting respiratory conditions. Some even fear that they will lead to hypercapnia, or too much carbon dioxide (CO2), in the bloodstream.
“Our lungs allow for the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide, which is essential for the body to function,” physician Robert Graham told health website mindbodygreen.
Endurance athlete and New York Times bestselling author Brian MacKenzie said that because masks cover the nose and mouth, they make breathing difficult. He wrote in an Instagram post that masks may even trap carbon dioxide, which is dangerous for those who are CO2-intolerant. “CO2 intolerant means we don’t use our lungs as much and do not use O2 optimally,” MacKenzie said.
According to one study, symptoms of CO2 retention may include rapid heartbeat, shortness of breath, flushed skin, confusion, headaches and dizziness.
Though there is little risk of getting hypercapnia for most people, Graham suggested taking off your mask if you do experience any of the listed symptoms associated with CO2 retention, especially if you are wearing a tightfitting (non-cloth or non-surgical) mask and have been using it for a prolonged period of time.
Although breathing fresh oxygen is critical to your health, it is a short-term fix. “Oxygen cannot work without CO2,” MacKenzie said. “The better we control our breathing – say spending most of the time nasal-only breathing – the better we develop a tolerance to CO2.”
To increase your CO2 tolerance and keep yourself breathing when going outside, mindbodygreen has shared the best tips to strengthen your lungs amid the coronavirus pandemic:
“[Exercise] raises carbon dioxide, which is why we breathe more when we exercise,” MacKenzie said. In fact, one study found that though exercise normally causes you to become breathless, regular exercise can increase the strength and function of your muscles. “Your muscles will require less oxygen to move, and they will produce less carbon dioxide. […] This will immediately reduce the amount of air you will need to breathe in and out for a given exercise,” the study said.
MacKenzie said that exercise is important because it requires more metabolic activity. “That would be optimized by doing things that are aerobic in nature like hiking and running.” Metabolic activity can also be increased through squatting, sitting, pulling and other strength exercises. “Picking heavy things up from time to time is critical and can be done a number of different ways and through varying modalities,” he said.
Graham recommended practicing diaphragmatic breathing, belly breathing and simple deep breathing to increase awareness of the diaphragm muscle, adding that they “get you closer to reaching your lungs’ full capacity.” To do this:
- Count how long your natural breath takes, both in and out.
- Slowly add one more count to your inhales and exhales.
- Do this until you can comfortably spend the time it takes to fill and empty your lungs.
“Learning to have some sort of breath control or doing some hypoxic work… will increase your CO2 tolerance, which will increase your ability to have on a mask,” MacKenzie said in the Instagram post. This may also help reduce panic as a result of wearing a face mask.
Improve Your Posture
Respiration can be affected by certain postures. To prevent this, “stand strong while lifting the chest and opening the front of your body as you breathe deeply,” Graham said. Most importantly, avoid hunching over.
Regular hydration is important for respiration, among other reasons. Graham explained that drinking water throughout the day helps keep the mucosal linings in your lungs moist, helping your lungs function better.