Can't Breathe In Your Mask? Here Are 4 Tips To Strengthen Your Lungs
Along with social distancing, wearing a face mask1 is a critical component in reducing the spread of COVID-19. Unfortunately, masks may make it more difficult to breathe. Some people even fear they'll lead to hypercapnia, or too much carbon dioxide (CO2) in the bloodstream, as a result.
To help quell your mask-related fears, we broke down how masks may affect oxygen and carbon dioxide levels and rounded up expert-approved tips for supporting your lungs.
How might masks affect breathing?
"Our lungs allow for the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide, which is essential for the body to function," physician Robert Graham, M.D., MPH, FACP, says.
Because masks cover the nose and mouth, they may make breathing difficult, says human performance coach and New York Times bestselling author Brian MacKenzie. In an Instagram post, he writes that masks may even trap carbon dioxide, which could be dangerous for people who are CO2 intolerant. "CO2 intolerant means we don't use our lungs as much and do not use O2 optimally," MacKenzie tells mindbodygreen.
According to one study, symptoms of CO2 retention (hypercapnia)2 may include rapid heartbeat (tachycardia), shortness of breath (dyspnea), flushed skin, confusion, headaches, and dizziness.
Unless your mask is tightfitting and used for a prolonged period of time, though, there is little risk of becoming hypercapnic. "For most people, wearing cloth or surgical masks puts them in little to no danger of breathing in unhealthy amounts of carbon dioxide," Graham says.
That said, if you are experiencing any of the symptoms associated with CO2 retention, Graham suggests taking off your mask while social distancing and breathing deeply.
While breathing in fresh oxygen is a critical solution, it's still a short-term fix. "[Oxygen] cannot work without CO2, and the better we control our breathing—say spending most of the time nasal-only breathing—the better we develop a tolerance to CO2," MacKenzie tells mbg.
To help you strengthen your lungs over time and increase your tolerance to carbon dioxide, these four tips could help.
How to strengthen your lungs:
"[Exercise] raises carbon dioxide, which is why we breathe more when we exercise," MacKenzie says.
In fact, one study explains, it's normal to get breathless during exercise, but regular exercise can increase the strength and function of your muscles3. "Your muscles will require less oxygen to move, and they will produce less carbon dioxide," the study says. "This will immediately reduce the amount of air you will need to breathe in and out for a given exercise."
Exercise is important because it requires more metabolic activity, MacKenzie tells mindbodygreen. "That would be optimized by doing things that are aerobic in nature like hiking and running." You can also increase metabolic activity through strength exercises, like squatting, pressing, and pulling. "Picking heavy things up from time to time is critical and can be done a number of different ways and through varying modalities," he says.
To increase awareness of the diaphragm muscle, Graham recommends practicing diaphragmatic breathing, belly breathing, and simple deep breathing. "These techniques get you closer to reaching your lungs' full capacity," he says.
To do this:
- Count how long your natural breath, in and out, takes.
- Slowly add one more count to every inhale and exhale.
- Do this until you can comfortably extend 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 says in the post. It may also help to reduce panic associated with wearing a mask.
3. Improve your posture
Certain postures can interfere with respiration4. To prevent this, Graham says to "stand strong while lifting the chest and opening the front of your body as you breathe deeply." Most importantly, don't hunch over.
Staying well hydrated is important for several reasons5, including respiration. Drinking water throughout the day helps keep the mucosal linings in your lungs moist, Graham explains, which helps the lungs function better.
Breathing in excessive carbon dioxide is dangerous, Graham tells us, especially for people with preexisting respiratory conditions. However, the risk of becoming hypercapnic from appropriately fitting cloth masks is low.
If you do notice dizziness, fatigue, or other symptoms of hypercapnia from prolonged use, separate from others, remove your mask, and breathe in fresh air.
Abby Moore is an editorial operations manager at mindbodygreen. She earned a B.A. in Journalism from The University of Texas at Austin and has previously written for Tribeza magazine. She has covered topics ranging from regenerative agriculture to celebrity entrepreneurship. Moore worked on the copywriting and marketing team at Siete Family Foods before moving to New York.