Deep breathing & coughing exercise

Updated July 19, 2017

Deep breathing and coughing exercises help prevent airway obstructions and accumulation of secretions that interfere with normal breathing. Deep breathing improves relaxation, reduces stress and improves endurance and exercise tolerance. Coughing exercises help maintain or improve chest mobility, improve airway clearance and drainage of fluids utilising mobilisation and postural activities. When complications arise treatment may be necessary and be provided in intensive care, rehabilitation, post-surgical settings or at home provided by respiratory therapists.

Muscles of respiration

The diaphragm is the major muscle for breathing or what is referred to as inspiration. During relaxed breathing it is the primary muscle that moves air into the lungs. As it contracts, it is pulled downward increasing the capacity of the the rib cage. Muscles in between the ribs also act to increase the amount of inspiration by lifting and expanding the chest cavity. As the muscles relax, air is exhaled from the lungs.

Deep breathing

Start by lying down on a flat surface. Place a hand on your stomach, just above your navel. Place the other hand on your chest. Breathe in slowly and try to make your stomach rise a little. Hold your breath for 5 seconds. Breathe out slowly and let your stomach relax downward. Breath in through your nose and exhale through your mouth.

Diaphragmatic breathing

Some goals of diaphragmatic breathing are to improve ventilation, increase the effectiveness of coughing and correct inefficient or abnormal breathing patterns. Try to breathe in slowly but deeply. Keep your shoulders relaxed and upper chest still. Allow the stomach to rise. Slowly let all the air out. Practice three or four times and rest. Do not force expiration. It should be deep, controlled and relaxed. Avoid hyperventilating or breathing rapidly. Practice when lying, sitting, standing, walking and climbing stairs.

Chesty coughing

The National Health Service defines a chesty cough as one that brings up mucus and is an important way to keep your throat and airways clear. Mucus is also called phlegm or sputum. A cough consists of deep inspiration. The glottis, a flap of tissue, closes restricting airflow. The vocal cords tighten. Abdominal muscles begin to contract as the diaphragm elevates. This causes an increase in internal lung pressure. The glottis opens and an explosive expiration of air occurs.

Coughing technique

According to the Cleveland Clinic, to cough effectively, start with sitting on a chair with both feet on the floor. Lean slightly forward. Relax. Fold your arms across your abdomen and breathe in slowly through your nose. The power of the cough comes from moving air. To exhale: lean forward, pressing your arms against your abdomen. Slightly open mouth. Cough two to three times, short and sharp. Breathe in again by "sniffing" slowly through your nose. This gentle breath prevents mucus from moving back down your airways. Rest and repeat. The first cough loosens the mucus. The second and third cough moves the mucus up and out.


Effective coughing is an integral part of a healthy lifestyle. Smokers or those with respiratory diseases or conditions should consult a health-care professional. Excessive coughing may indicate an infection or disease process. Avoid uncontrolled coughing spasms and forceful coughing. Try to cough in a somewhat erect posture. If you are experiencing an accumulation of fluids there is a risk for pulmonary complications and you may need professional postural drainage therapy.

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About the Author

Gary Maguire has been writing since 1998 and provides medical reviews for Research Review Services. As a physical therapist for 19 years, he has also served as an expert witness, corporate speaker and taught continuing medical education. Maguire holds a Master of Science and a Bachelor of Science in physical therapy from D'Youville College and a Bachelor of Science in biology from Washington State University.