Of all the ways to improve your respiratory system and make it stronger, running may be the best. Not only will running help you maintain a healthy weight and ward off diseases ranging from the common cold to diabetes and heart disease, but it's a good option for many because it's low cost and can be done just about anywhere. What keeps many runners on the road are the health benefits, including improved respiratory function.
Your Respiratory System
Respiration is literally the act of breathing. When you breathe, your respiratory system -- that is, your airways, lungs, diaphragm and supporting musculature -- engages in processing the air and putting oxygen into your bloodstream. Your heart and lungs working together form your cardiovascular system, which transports the oxygenated blood throughout your body. When you strengthen your respiratory system through running, you also improve your cardiovascular fitness.
How Cardiovascular Fitness is Measured
Cardiovascular fitness is measured using your heart rate, which will be higher if your heart has to work very hard to transport blood and oxygen. Take your resting heart rate by recording your pulse before you get out of bed in the morning; it should be between 60 and 100 beats per minute if you're a normal, healthy adult woman, or even lower if you're very fit. Your maximum heart rate can be estimated by subtracting your age from 226. Another measurement tool you can use is your heart rate recovery, which is how quickly your heart rate drops two minutes after stopping your exercise. Running lowers your resting heart rate and improves your heart rate recovery.
Your maximum oxygen uptake, or VO2 max, is a measure of how much oxygen your body can effectively transport and use, and is commonly used to measure cardiovascular fitness. Your VO2 max can be measured using self-administered or professional fitness tests, or estimated by multiplying 15 times the ratio of your maximum heart rate over your resting heart rate. Running for 30 minutes three or four times per week at 75 to 85 percent of your maximum heart rate can improve your VO2 max by more than 6 percent in just 18 weeks.
When you first embark on a running program, you may not be able to run for very long; if you set out with a predetermined goal time or distance, you may have trouble achieving it at first. Your running performance will improve as your body adapts and you gain more endurance. In fact, a University of Vermont study found that with 18 weeks of consistent running, the time it took study participants to run to exhaustion increased by more than 23 percent as a result of their strengthened respiratory system and improved cardiovascular fitness.
Ari Reid has a bachelor's degree in biology (behavior) and a master's in wildlife ecology. When Reid is not training to run marathons, she is operating a non-profit animal rescue organization. Reid has been writing web content for science, health and fitness blogs since 2008.