Dr. Al Sears’s article on the importance of lung capacity for longevity Dr. Al Sears Article link
is important reading. The idea is this: lung capacity (volume) is a key indicator for longevity, and sustained aerobics exercise actually decreases lung capacity. Why is that? Running or aerobic activities tend to promote quick respirations that fail to allow full expansion of the lungs. Aerobic activity can actually lower lung capacity because the shallow inhalations can lead to a gradual shrinkage from lack of full expansion.
This provides a hint why the average yogi tends to far outlive the average aerobics buff.
There are two ways to expand lung capacity. The first is using bursts of intense exercise followed by rest to stress the lungs past their capacity, forcing expansive inhalations to recover. This is my preferred method of conditioning exercise. It is important for cardiovascular health because it mimics how intense stress can push our heart beyond its capacity. Training our heart to withstand this stress prevents overtaxing, which more than anything leads to heart attacks and heart failure as we age.
The second is some form of pranayama. This is a Sanskrit word from prana or “breath” and ayama or “control.” Pranayama might be thought of as a “breathing exercise” that comes from the hatha yoga tradition handed down to us from India. I recently heard yogi Richard Freeman refer to yoga as “pranayama for restless people.” In other words, the breath rules in yoga, not the actual movement or postures.
Prana in the Sanskrit means both “breath” and “vital energy.” “Vital breath” might be the closest translation. In other words, for the ancient energy masters, breathing in air is a process of taking in life force (prana or Qi for the Chinese). I find it interesting that lung capacity, that is, the capacity to breath in the vital force is directly associated with living a long life. Reduced ability to take in life energy curtails our ability to live long.
Because I am restless, I choose to do yoga for most of my pranayama. The process of taking deep, expansive, controlled breaths, pushing the lung capacity is the cornerstone of a good yoga practice. If you spend some time during the week doing yoga—and I recommend you do—be sure to tank up on air with slow inhalations, stretching the rib cage, releasing with even longer exhalations. I suspect this is the most important factor in keeping our lungs healthy.
So, choose an interval work-out that uses short bursts of intense activity, or, choose yoga, using rich deep breaths, for good heart-lung health and longevity. Perhaps best, choose both.