Q: Do you burn calories by coughing and does it help to build ‘ab’ muscles?! I have to be getting some kind of workout out of this damned cold…
Asked by Suzanne Butler via Facebook
Your question is surprisingly difficult to answer. Energy expenditure has been measured in a variety of ways, but to do it accurately is not straightforward (here is a description of the different techniques).
The calories burned whilst suffering different respiratory conditions has been calculated (e.g. in cystic fibrosis) and is quite considerable. However, when fighting off an infection, the body is using energy to power both the immune system and for coughing. The amount of energy the immune system uses depends on how severe the infection is. It is therefore very tricky to work out how exactly much energy is being used in coughing when unwell. Make sense?
I was able to hunt out some research performed by a team of physiotherapists wanting to know whether huffing or coughing was the most efficient way to clear the chest. With a group of young, healthy volunteers, the researchers recorded how much energy was used when the subjects voluntarily coughed hard.
Using their findings and doing some of my own calculations, I calculate that a 65kg person would burn an extra 48 calories (kcal) if coughing for one entire hour (which is less than a slice of bread). A ten minute bout of coughing would expend only 8 calories.
In terms of giving your ‘abs’ a workout – coughing for long periods will put your muscles under quite a lot of strain. When coughing out, a selection of muscles are used as well as the ‘six pack’ (the rectus abdominis). Other abdominal muscles (the internal and external obliques, and the transversus abdominis) and muscles between the ribs (the internal intercostal muscles) are used. You can check out where all these muscles are on this diagram. If coughing is particularly bad or prolonged then even more muscles are involved – those around the back, neck and chest (called the ‘accessory muscles’).
Lots of coughing will probably give stronger muscles over time, but because coughing movements are very forceful and (often) prolonged, they will be in danger of getting sore, strained or overtense (‘hypertonic’).
So in summary, coughing isn’t a good way to lose weight. Nor is it a good way to get ripped. Coughing is good for bringing up phlegm and grot from the bottom of your lungs. It is also quite good at keeping your partner awake at night and wrecking your beautiful singing voice.
Answered by Dr Stu
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Pontifex E, Williams MT, Lunn R, & Parsons D (2002). The effect of huffing and directed coughing on energy expenditure in young asymptomatic subjects. The Australian journal of physiotherapy, 48 (3), 209-13 PMID: 12217070