'I'm a Pulmonologist, and This Is the Daily Habit I Swear By for Lung Health'

Pulmonologist looking at lung scan

Every part of your body needs oxygen to function properly. The main job of your respiratory system is to make sure that happens—it’s responsible for circulating fresh air throughout your body and removing waste gases. Taking steps to keep your lungs healthy is the best way to keep this system working well.

Lung health often doesn’t get as much attention as the heart, gut and other areas of health, especially as it relates to nonsmokers, says Dr. Joseph Khabbaza, MD, a pulmonologist at Cleveland Clinic.

“The reality is we’re exposed to the air and pollution and allergens in the environment,” he says. “These are things that gradually, over time, can affect our health.”

Breathing well is vital for life, says Dr. Michael Polsky, MD, a pulmonologist at Pulmonary Associates of Richmond in Virginia, “But also for your well-being, just feeling well and being able to do your daily activities.”

Generally, taking care of your lungs and breaking some bad habits that could be damaging the organs is crucial for preventing lung problems down the road, not to mention managing asthma if you have it. Here’s what pulmonologists say you need to know.

Why You Should Think More About Your Lung Health as You Age

Whether you're living with a chronic lung condition (like asthma) or not, as you age, your lung function naturally decreases, says Dr. Adam Glassman, MD, chief of pulmonary medicine at Holy Name Medical Center in Englewood, New Jersey. “It pays to optimize lung health before worsening natural deterioration,” he says.

Related: 13 Signs Your Lungs May Not Be Healthy

Dr. Polsky suggests focusing on a three-pronged approach: prevention, maintenance and early intervention. That means avoiding things that cause your lung health to deteriorate (and, we’ll get to that later).

Maintenance refers to taking any necessary medications if you have allergies, asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), he explains. And, talk to your doctor if you notice changes in your breathing, such as shortness of breath, coughing or wheezing, to catch any problems early.

The Most Important Habit to Break

The most important thing you can do for your lung health is quit smoking, pulmonologists emphasize. “Whether it’s cigarettes, marijuana or vaping—these are all things that we know, in time, hurt most people’s lungs and increase the odds of having lung disease and lung symptoms that might be irreversible,” Dr. Khabbaza says.

Quitting smoking also lowers your risk for multiple types of cancer and cardiovascular disease and improves your overall health, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In some cases, quitting smoking can repair some of the damage to your body that smoking caused, according to the American Lung Association. Your lung function can improve after two weeks of quitting, and after a year, your risk of heart disease is half of that of a smoker.

Related: The Unexpected Sign of Pneumonia Most People Miss, According to Preventative Care and Pulmonary Physicians

Along with quitting, Dr. Khabbaza says to try to eliminate or reduce your exposure to environmental irritants that are affecting your breathing. For example, if you work in an older building and notice you don’t breathe as well during the workday or are around mold or chemicals that irritate your breathing.

This Daily Habit Will Improve Lung Health

After quitting smoking, regular physical activity is the best thing you can do for your lungs, Dr. Glassman says. “It helps with aerobic function and enables your muscles to utilize oxygen more effectively.”

Exercise is also good for your heart, mental health and overall well-being, he adds.

The more active you are, your heart and lungs work harder to deliver oxygen to your muscles, according to the American Lung Association. This makes your heart and lungs stronger and improves your fitness levels, which improves your body’s efficiency at transporting oxygen to the bloodstream and muscles.

“Deep breaths allow for better lung inflation,” Dr. Khabbaza says. Breathing deeper can help move bacteria and mucus through the airways, which can minimize your risk for illnesses like pneumonia or infection.

Strive to exercise for 30 minutes a day five days a week. While any type of activity is beneficial, Dr. Polsky suggests doing the most vigorous exercises that you’re capable of.

“That’s going to push you a little bit further and make you stronger,” he adds. Any exercises that get your heart rate up and cause you to breathe deeply are encouraged, Dr. Khabbaza says.

Diet is important too. Research suggests that people who eat more dietary fiber have the highest lung function.

Related: The Best Foods for Healthy Lungs—And the Ones You Should Avoid

Eating more whole foods, including fruits and vegetables, and limiting ultra-processed foods minimizes inflammation in the body, which could lower your risk for some lung conditions, Dr. Khabbaza says. Generally, healthy eating improves your overall health, which ultimately benefits your lungs.

A regular exercise routine and healthy diet also enable you to maintain a healthy weight. “Excess weight will make it more difficult to do exercise and will make you more winded with activity,” Dr. Polsky says.

When to Get Your Lungs Tested

If you have a risk factor for lung disease, such as smoking, asthma or regular exposure to pollutants, getting annual lung function checkups is a good idea, Dr. Glassman says. This can include spirometry, which measures how much air you breathe in and how fast you blow air out. A checkup might also include a chest x-ray, a lung volume test or an exercise test.

If you’re healthy without risk factors, it’s also beneficial to have periodic breathing tests as you get older since your lung function can decline, Dr. Khabbaza says. But there’s no set guideline for how often to get your lungs tested.

Pay attention to how you feel, Dr. Polsky suggests. If you’re feeling more winded when you’re active than you were before, talk to your doctor. Also, get checked if you have a persistent cough or congestion, wheezing, often feel like you need to clear your throat or cough up blood.

Another way to protect your lung health is to stay up-to-date on vaccines that guard against respiratory illnesses, including getting regular flu and COVID shots, as well as an RSV or pneumococcal vaccine if you’re eligible, Dr. Khabbaza says.

Next, read about the pneumococcal vaccine.