We can’t promise that you’ll be the next Michael Phelps, but pay heed to these tips and you’ll soon be able to power through your workout, even if you weren’t born with the Olympian’s ideal physique and lung capacity. With the SEA Games around the corner, we sought out Dr. Helmy Haja Mydin, consultant in respiratory medicine at Pantai Hospital Kuala Lumpur, to learn more about the relationship between respiratory health and exercise.
Sweat It Out Regularly
When you exercise, your muscles work harder, leading to an increase in strength. Scientifically speaking, strong muscles require less oxygen to move and will produce less carbon dioxide, Dr. Helmy says. “This has the effect of decreasing the amount of air required for a given exercise,” he explains. In other words, frequent exercise leads to an increase in oxygen capacity, which can improve endurance.
Not only does regular exercise make you a better athlete, it also improves your health in general. “The healthier your lungs, the less susceptible you are to an infection,” Dr. Helmy adds.
Pro Tip: Exercise two to three times a week to gradually build endurance.
Get Your Heart Pumping
What types of exercise should I do to boost my athletic performance? “Cardiovascular exercise in general,” Dr. Helmy says. However, he strongly recommends high intensity interval training (HIIT). The workout requires little oxygen but involves short bursts of energy that helps build strength and muscle endurance, he explains. HIIT also improves VO2 Max, a measure of oxygen consumption and how quickly it is delivered to the muscles. “Do it at least three times in a single workout, twice a week,” Dr. Helmy suggests
If you’re not a fan of HIIT and still intend to build strength, he suggests endurance sports such as long-distance running or brisk walking for elderly people. The suggested cardio workouts will make your lungs healthier. “What improves your cardiovascular system will improve your lungs as well,” Dr. Helmy says.
Pro Tip: Try swimming, as the sport builds endurance and works all major muscle groups.
Bid Farewell to Cigarettes
Need more reason to stub out your cigarette? Not only is smoking detrimental to your lungs, it also retards your athletic growth. “Smoking damages the structure of your lungs and its cells,” Dr. Helmy says. As smoking impairs your ability to absorb oxygen and release carbon dioxide, it prevents you from achieving your maximum capacity when working out, he explains.
For certain individuals, smoking could immediately jeopardise their athletic performance even if they’ve just picked up the habit. “It all depends on the person’s susceptibility,” he says. “It’s a combination of your genetics and what you’re exposed to.”
Pro Tip: Wet your hands when you get the urge to smoke.
Avoid Environmental Irritants
Both indoor and outdoor air pollution can also affect your respiratory health, limiting your fitness potential. “Things that irritate your airways like hazy days can trigger an inflammation in your lungs, Dr. Helmy says. As for indoor irritants, mould in the air and exposure to silica at work can potentially cause lung disease. In more extreme cases, fibrosis can develop too.
So how long does it take for these irritants to take effect? “It’s a spectrum,” Dr. Helmy says. “It can be dangerous when you are exposed to small amounts over a long period of time or large amounts over a short period of time.” Your lungs are the only organs that are constantly taking in external pollutants. So always be aware of your surroundings.
Pro Tip: Look out for mould in your environment. Its presence indicates high humidity, which can also affect your respiratory health.