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The importance of respiratory exercise for healthy aging

Learning to breathe fully, and exercising your respiratory muscles, are key to healthy aging.

We take the ability to breathe freely and fully for granted. However, like other muscles in the body, the respiratory muscles become weak and less efficient with age, if they are not sufficiently exercised. This is particularly true for the muscles responsible for inhalation, i.e. the diaphragm and the intercostal muscles.

Imagine having to continuously struggle to catch your breath! This is the reality for millions of people with dyspnea, or shortness of breath. More than one in four Americans (27%) experience dyspnea brought on either because of lack of exercise, the effects of aging, an underlying medical condition or a combination of these. Breathing is a continuous struggle for people with shortness of breath, drastically undermining their quality of life every moment of the day.

It’s a sobering thought, but we are all at risk for developing dyspnea as we get older. As we age, we begin to lose muscle mass at an increasing pace. Add to that inactivity brought about by fatigue, lack of exercise, illness, injury, and a sedentary lifestyle, and for many Americans, the upshot is that the respiratory muscles become progressively weaker. As breathing becomes a struggle, elderly adults are more likely to restrict their activity. This often begins a vicious circle, in which breathlessness leads to more inactivity, and inactivity results in further reduced respiratory capacity.

Fortunately, this process be halted, and breathing can be retrained to some extent, according to research charting the benefits of respiratory muscle training for elderly too weak to engage in traditional cardiovascular exercise.

Research shows that yoga breathing exercises may prove to be particularly helpful. In one study published in The Journal of Geriatric Therapy, looked at the differences in respiratory muscle strength and endurance for elderly adults, who participated in either traditional inspiratory therapy, yogic breathing exercises, or no treatment.

The study included 81 residents (90% women) of an elderly care facility with a mean age of 85 years. The residents were randomly assigned to receive 6 weeks of either inspiratory muscle training or yoga breathing 5 days per week, or no treatment. To be included in the study, participants had to be unable to independently walk more than 30 feet at the beginning of the study.

A total of 71 participants completed the study. At the end of the six-week study period, those in the yoga breathing group demonstrated significant improvements in all measures of respiratory muscle strength and endurance (inspiratory, expiratory, and maximum voluntary ventilation).

More significantly, the people in the group that received yoga breathing training also exhibited greater improvement in respiratory muscle strength and endurance than those in the traditional inspiratory muscle training as well as in the no-training groups. In other words, yoga breathing, or pranayama, may be more effective in restoring better breathing in frail, older adults, and yoga breathing exercises may well offer an effective alternative to more expensive inhibitory muscle training in elderly adults, the authors concluded.

Since dyspnea is often related to other medical conditions, as well as anxiety and depression, the results could have significant implications for the long-term quality of life of an aging population. Previous studies suggest that a regular yoga practice can effectively reduce the symptoms of a number of chronic conditions in addition to increasing positive mood and decreasing anxiety.

Yoga breathing techniques may be able to improve quality of life on many fronts. Compared to many traditional therapies for respiratory conditions, yogic breathing can be done anywhere and does not require expensive equipment. This treatment approach may be of particular benefit for the millions of older adults globally who have little or no access to traditional forms of health care.

The breath is the heart of yoga. It governs prana or “life force,” and has significant bearing on the physical and emotional quality of our lives. The ancient masters believed that regular pranayama practice increases resiliency and longevity. This study suggests that they may be right.

For yoga practitioners, the study is also a reminder of the importance to keep up with simple pranayama techniques, like Uyaji breathing and full 3-part breath to keep the diaphragm and intercostal muscles strong and prevent the age-related reduction of breathing capacity that many people fall prey to as they get older.


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