Paying attention to how you respire can foster greater health and well-being.
by Beverly Burmeier
Drawing breath: It is the very definition of being alive. But as ordinary—and vital—as the act of respiration is, most people don’t do it in the most healthful manner.
“Correct breathing is a cost-free, drug-free path to better health,” says Gerilynn Connors, RRT, MAACVPR, FAARC, a respiratory therapist and pulmonary rehabilitation specialist in Falls Church, Virginia, and chair of the American Association for Respiratory Care’s Continuing Care and Rehabilitation Section. “We take breathing for granted because it’s automatic and natural from birth, but the benefits of proper breathing affect all systems of the body.”
Test your own breathing style by placing one hand on your chest and the other on your abdomen. Take a normal breath and see which hand rises more. If the hand on your chest does, you’re taking short, shallow breaths instead of deep, relaxed and effortless breaths that come from using your diaphragm, the dome-shaped muscle between the chest and the abdomen, to move air in and out of your lungs.
A significant number of studies have shown that deep, meditative breathing helps to calm the nerves, relax muscular tension and reduce pain and stress. Deep breathing also boosts blood circulation while reducing blood pressure and heart rate; in addition, it promotes clearer thinking and increases energy levels. “Getting enough oxygen into your body allows muscles and organs to function more effectively,” Connors says.
Singers learn to breathe from the abdomen because it allows them better breath control. But this technique, called diaphragmatic or belly breathing, is best for everyone, says Connors. Actually, most people naturally breathe from the diaphragm when sleeping but tend to change habits when awake.
In chest breathing, air exchange occurs at the top of the lungs rather than within the lower lobes, where the greatest amount of blood flow occurs. Have you ever noticed that when you are under emotional stress your nervous system reacts with a faster heartbeat, tense muscles and quick, shallow breaths? This is a state that can contribute to inflammation, high blood pressure and muscle pain. (Close your eyes, take a deep breath and sigh to see how easily tension leaves your body.)
Breathing from your diaphragm forces more fresh air into the lungs and subsequently expels more carbon dioxide. The increased exchange of air dilates small blood vessels, which lowers blood pressure and decreases stress on the heart.
“Breathing has direct connections to emotional states and moods,” says Andrew Weil, MD, nationally known author and integrative health practitioner (drweil.com). “An angry person breaths rapidly, noisily and irregularly, but it’s possible to center yourself emotionally by making breathing quiet, deep and regular. It’s a function we can learn to regulate and develop.”
“The art of breathing opens both mind and body to a profound sense of calm and relaxation,” says Deborah Piontek, RRT, RPFT, who coordinates the Pulmonary Rehabilitation Program at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.
“Try to incorporate the art of conscious breathing into your daily life, even if for just five minutes,” advises Piontek. You can do so anytime and anywhere, but Piontek says early morning, before you arise, is a good time to sit or lie quietly in a comfortable position and take five deep, slow, diaphragmatic breaths through the nose, exhaling through the mouth. If your mind wanders, bring the focus back to your breath; feel the abdomen expand as you inhale and retract when you exhale.
Inhalation through the nose warms and filters impurities from outside air before it reaches your lungs. Connors recommends exhaling between pursed lips, which slows the exhalation process; exhaling should take two times as long as inhaling to provide the best oxygenation for your blood, Connors says. Counting to four during inhalation and to eight as you exhale may help you stay focused.
When exhaling, squeeze out every last bit of air. If you exhale incompletely, too little air moves in and out of your lungs. Good health relies on the efficient delivery of oxygen to cells and an equally efficient removal of carbon dioxide from the body.
Remember to breathe when exercising or doing activities that require a bit of exertion, such as walking up a flight of stairs or reaching for something from a high cabinet. “Holding the breath during activity is not good for your body. You need to breathe even more efficiently during exercise,” Connors advises.
Next time you think that getting a cup of coffee will help boost your flagging energy and alertness, try slow and deliberate breathing instead and see how invigorated you feel. Since proper breathing is an element of yoga and tai chi, these practices may give you a framework for practicing correct techniques.
If you are concerned about your total breath capacity, Connors recommends learning your lung function numbers. A spirometry test administered by a healthcare professional is the only way to determine precisely how much air is flowing into and out of your lungs.
Breathing is a simple act, but that doesn’t mean it should always be automatic. Making a conscious effort to breathe deeply can reap health dividends.