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The Respiratory System and Physical Activity

Edited by: Areesha Arshad

Respiratory System Overview

  • The respiratory system is the network of tissues and organs that support our breathing. Its main role is to remove waste gasses while bringing fresh air into our bodies. Gas exchange is the process of exchanging oxygen for carbon dioxide. The oxygen reaches our tissues and organs and allows us to accomplish our everyday lives.

  • The respiratory system also helps bring air at the right body temperature, protects our bodies from adverse substances and helps with our sense of smell.

Fun facts about the respiratory system

  • The average person breathes a quantity equal to 13 pints of air every minute!

  • Laid flat, your lungs would cover an entire tennis court!

Common chronic diseases affecting the respiratory system

  • Chronic respiratory diseases affect the airways and parts of the lung such as asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and obstructive sleep apnea (OSA). Respiratory diseases can touch any age and have an effect on the individual, their family and the community.

  • People with a lower SES have a higher prevalence and mortality of COPD and increased severity and hospitalizations with asthma

  • The biggest risk factors for respiratory diseases include tobacco smoke (personal and second-hand exposure) as well as indoor and outdoor air quality.

Physical activity and the respiratory system

  • Exercise can improve lung health by increasing our lung capacity which is the maximum amount of oxygen that our bodies can use. It can also augment blood flow to our lungs which leads to more blood flow to the heart pumping oxygen throughout our body

  • Exercise and asthma

  • Increasing physical activity can help people with asthma by increasing their exercise tolerance and capacity which then increases the threshold for inducing exercise-induced bronchoconstriction.

  • Exercise and COPD

  • Physical activity such as strength training can improve skeletal muscle which increases activities of daily living for people living with COPD. It also causes a reduction in mortality.

  • Exercise and OSA

  • Exercising with OSA can help reduce the severity of the condition and daytime sleepiness. It also increases sleep efficiency and maximum oxygen consumption

What type of physical activity should you do?

  • Aerobic activities such as jumping rope, walking, swimming and running can help the lungs function more efficiently

  • Muscle-strengthening activities such as weight-lifting and resistance training can help tone your breathing muscles

Things to keep in mind

  • Although there are many benefits to exercising when it comes to lung health, it can feel intimidating to get started with physical activity while living with a chronic respiratory disease.

  • Make sure to talk to your healthcare provider before getting started to find the best exercise program for you and help manage your ongoing symptoms

References American Lung Association. (n.d.). How lungs work. Retrieved from American Lung Association. (n.d.). Physical activity and COPD. Retrieved from Berntsen, S., Carlsen, K. C. L., Anderssen, S. A., Mowinckel, P., Hageberg, R., Bueso, A. K., & Carlsen, K.-H. (2009). Norwegian adolescents with asthma are physical active and fit. In Allergy (Vol. 64, Issue 3, pp. 421–426). Wiley.

Canadian Lung Association. (n.d.). Respiratory system. Retrieved from

Government of Canada. (2019). Chronic respiratory diseases. Retrieved from

Johns Hopkins Medicine. (2019). Asthma and exercise. Retrieved from

Kingsley, C. (n.d.). 12 fun facts about breathing. Lung Institute. Retrieved from

Lee-Iannotti, J. K., & Parish, J. M. (2020). Exercise as a treatment for sleep apnea. In Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine (Vol. 16, Issue 7, pp. 1005–1006). American Academy of Sleep Medicine (AASM).

Waschki, B., Kirsten, A., Holz, O., Müller, K.-C., Meyer, T., Watz, H., & Magnussen, H. (2011). Physical Activity Is the Strongest Predictor of All-Cause Mortality in Patients With COPD. In Chest (Vol. 140, Issue 2, pp. 331–342). Elsevier BV.

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