The lungs are responsible for the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide that keep the brain, heart, and other parts of the body healthy. Age, smoking, inhaling pollutants, and other factors can affect lung function.

People cannot necessarily change their lung capacity in terms of how much oxygen their lungs can hold. However, they can perform exercises that may reduce shortness of breath when they have a lower lung function than is desirable. An example could be someone who has chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

A person should always talk to their doctor before starting any exercise program, including breathing exercises. This is especially true if they have an underlying condition such as COPD.

Pursed lip breathing

Woman doing breathing exercises on the sofa to improve lung capacity
Breathing exercises can help improve a person’s lung capacity.

Pursed lip breathing is an exercise that can help to keep the airways open for longer to help air flow.

The exercise is easy to perform, and people can do it almost anywhere.

To do pursed lip breathing:

  • Sit up straight. Practicing good posture can help promote better lung movement.
  • Breathe in deeply through your nose in a slow, controlled fashion.
  • Purse your lips, which is much like making a “kissing” face where your lips are almost, but not quite, touching.
  • Breathe out through your pursed lips, making a goal of breathing out twice as long as breathing in. Some people may find it beneficial to set a timer, such as focusing on breathing in for 5 seconds and exhaling for 10 seconds.

This exercise can be helpful for someone who is not as physically active as some others and may not be using their breathing muscles as frequently. Those with COPD can also benefit from performing this exercise.

Belly breathing

Belly breathing is an exercise that focuses on targeting and strengthening the diaphragm muscle that allows a person to take a deep breath. People can follow these steps to accomplish this exercise:

  • Rest your hand or another lightweight object on your stomach.
  • Breathe in slowly through your nose to note how your stomach rises and falls when breathing.
  • Breathe out through your mouth.
  • Breathe in through your nose again, this time trying to get your stomach to go up more than it did with the previous breath.
  • Try to exhale for a much longer time than when you inhale, such as two to three times as long.
  • Periodically, roll your shoulders forward and backward and move your head side to side to ensure you are not building tension in your upper body.

This exercise from the American Lung Association helps to improve the rate at which the lungs fill and empty air.

A person can practice belly breathing and pursed lip breathing for about 5 to 10 minutes every day to enhance their lung function.

Interval training

Man looking at watch during interval training.
Interval training may be better than steady exercise for improving a person’s breathing.

For people who have problems with breathlessness and shortness of breath while exercising, interval training may be a better solution than steady-state exercise.

Interval training involves alternating a more challenging exercise with a slower recovery period.

Examples include walking at a very fast pace for 1 minute, then walking more slowly for 2 minutes.

Similarly, a person may perform a weightlifting activity for 1 minute, such as bicep curls or lunges, then step to the side or walk at a gentle pace for 2 to 3 minutes.

Interval training allows the lungs time to recover before challenging them again.

Whenever a person is exercising and becomes short of breath, slowing down for a few minutes and performing pursed lip breathing can help. They can continue pursed lip breathing until feelings of breathlessness subside.

Tips for preserving lung health

While lung exercises cannot reverse damage already done to the lungs, they can help a person use their lungs to their best capacity.

Exercises are not the only thing a person can do to improve or protect their lung health.

Other steps people can take include:

  • refraining from smoking
  • drinking plenty of water
  • staying physically active

If a person has symptoms of poor lung health, such as shortness of breath during daily activities, pain when breathing, or a cough that will not go away, they should see their doctor. The earlier lung problems receive a diagnosis and treatment, the better the treatment outcome is likely to be.


Lung exercises can be beneficial to lung function. Pursed lip breathing and diaphragm breathing are two common focuses for people in pulmonary rehabilitation to improve their lung function.

Before starting any exercise program, including a lung exercise one, it is best to talk to a doctor to ensure there are not any restrictions or individual recommendations for best results.