Reaching Your Health Goals: Tips for Your COPD Journey

Posted on December 09, 2021   |   

This post was written by MeiLan Han, MD, MS, Professor of Pulmonary Medicine at the University of Michigan and member of the COPD Foundation Board of Directors.

This month at the COPD Foundation we’re focusing on goal setting. But what does that mean for you? I thought it might be fun to share with all of you some tips from my new book, Breathing Lessons, A Doctor’s Guide to Lung Health that you can consider for your own health journey. So what are some easy healthy habits you can adopt in 2022 to protect your respiratory health and boost your lung function?


I know this is something all of you already know a lot about, but it bears repeating. Many of my patients haven’t been doing too much exercise because of the pandemic. But to remind you, exercise can help the lungs in several ways. Exercises that focus on strengthening the respiratory muscles themselves, the diaphragm as well as the muscles that surround the neck, shoulders and back, can improve lung function, particularly among those that have underlying issues with muscle weakness. While there are specific inspiratory muscle training devices that can be used to help strengthen the diaphragm, I have the majority of my patients focus first on upper body strengthening exercises.

Even more importantly, I strongly recommend incorporating regular aerobic exercise into one’s daily routine. Aerobic exercise can be thought of as sustained activity that increases your heart and breathing rate. If you don’t currently have a good exercise routine, start by doing something easy such as walking or using a stationary bike or even foot pedaling device.

Eat a Mediterranean diet

A Mediterranean diet is a way of eating based on the traditional cuisines of countries that border the Mediterranean Sea. This diet is typically high in fruits, vegetables, legumes, whole grains, fish, and nuts and low in meat and dairy products. Olive oil is the primary source of added fat. Mediterranean diets are also high in antioxidants such as beta-carotene, vitamin C and polyphenols. Data suggests that when pregnant women consume a Mediterranean diet, their children are at lower risk for allergic diseases and may have improved lung function in childhood. A Mediterranean diet may also promote lung health in children which has been linked to lower prevalence of asthma. Vitamin D is also essential for maintaining immune function. The good news is that a Mediterranean-style diet also has proven health benefits beyond the lungs as well.

Reduce your exposure to outdoor air pollution

Air pollution related to climate change, extreme weather events and natural disasters such as wildfires are becoming real threats to human lung health. Hotter temperatures and drought both increase dust and particle pollution. Traffic is another source of air pollution, and is significantly worse in urban areas and near freeways. To reduce your exposure to outdoor air pollution, one thing you can do is to go to the website to check the Air Quality Index in your area at any given time. On unhealthy air quality days, your best bet is to keep yourself and children indoors if possible, with doors, windows, and fireplace dampers shut. Air cleaning devices with HEPA filters can provided additional protection. When driving on unhealthy air days, roll up your windows and operate the recirculate setting for your vehicle’s ventilation system.

Improve the quality of air in your home

Air pollution can also come from within the home. Sources of indoor air pollution include asbestos, building and paint products, cleaning supplies, mold, radon, residential wood burning and secondhand smoke. Strategies to mitigate exposure include things like using “low-VOC” (volatile organic compound) paints, which are now readily available. If you are installing new carpet, request that it be aired out before installation. Make sure you have working carbon monoxide detectors in your home. All homes should be tested at some point for radon, which is a naturally occurring substance that is a decay product of uranium. Radon is the second leading cause of lung cancer. Another often overlooked source of indoor air pollution is residential wood-burning stoves. Emissions from wood smoke can not only exacerbate asthma, but also lead to long-term lung function impairments. If switching fuel source to natural gas, for instance, is not an option, consider upgrading to a clean burning device if possible.

If you live in an apartment or condo building, there may be other considerations. Are there large, commercial-grade entry mats by all exterior doors? Best to trap dirt and other pollutants before they get inside the building! How often are the floors cleaned? Ideally, floors should be cleaned at least twice weekly with a high suction vacuum that has a HEPA filter. Is smoking allowed indoors? Banning smoking indoors and within 25 feet of all doors and windows will eliminate your risk of secondhand smoke indoors. If your community has smokers, ideally they would smoke outside in an area separate from the main building. Is the building dehumidified? Unless you live in a very arid climate, mold and dust mites are attracted to moisture. It is best to keep humidity between 30-50% to prevent mold growth. Does the building implement an air filtration system? Air filtration systems are relevant both for systems supplying public spaces as well as your own living unit. Ideally, systems that use HEPA filters (high-efficiency particulate air filters) that can remove at least 99.9% of dust, pollen, mold, and bacteria should be used. If there is no way that a central unit for the building can be installed, you can purchase individual units for your own living quarters.

The summary? Pay attention to your environment, and if the air quality index suggests an unhealthy air day, stay indoors when possible. Eat your fruits and vegetables, and if you aren’t exercising regularly, now is the perfect time to start.

MeiLan Han, MD MS, is author of the book, Breathing Lessons, A Doctor’s Guide to Lung Health.


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