Are you thinking about your next breath? Of course not, if we had to consciously think about each of our nearly 20,000 breaths per day we would never get anything else done, so it’s nice that it runs on auto-pilot. Not having to be conscious of our breath is a nice feature, but it can make us unconscious of how we are breathing.
We can overlook that our breathing may be labored, inefficient, or going at a faster rate than the task at hand demands. Each of these breathing patterns can possibly be a warning signal from our body. If we stop and pay more attention to our breath we can start to glean useful information on our health status.
Conversely, by manipulating our breath we can use it as a powerful tool to harness and create changes in both our body and mind. This is possible due to the fact that unlike other automatic functions in our body we can override our breath’s autopilot and alter the rate, and or mechanics however we want. For example, if we feel stressed, simply taking three to four slow breaths has a calming effect on our body by tapping into the restorative and relaxation side of our nervous system. Using techniques like these, our breath can be utilized to take charge of our body’s health, manage stress, reduce anxiety, and more.
As you are reading this you have probably started to be more conscious of your breath. Let’s use this moment to observe some specific elements of your normal breathing.
Try to breathe as you normally do. Notice that the second I told you to observe your breath it’s hard to avoid manipulating it, but nonetheless try to breath as you were a minute ago. Ideally this observation is done on an empty stomach.
Are you breathing through your nose or your mouth?
Are your shoulders coming up when you breathe?
Place your hand lightly on your neck take one deep breath. Did you feel your neck muscles contract?
Does your belly and/or ribs expand with your breath?
Are you able to expand your ribs in your back?
Count how many breaths (one cycle in and out) you have in 30 seconds. Multiply by two, and you have your breath rate.
Let’s explore that first question and why nasal breathing is our first important element to healthy breathing.
1 - NASAL BREATHING
Which pathway you use to carry air into your lungs is of essential importance. Your lungs work more efficiently and get less irritated when the air entering them is filtered, humidified, slowed, and warmed. The pesky hairs, mucous, and labyrinth pathway of the nose accomplishes all of these tasks. Your mouth on the other hand should be used for eating, talking, and only as a fail safe backup for when you have to catch the morning bus or for running the last 100 meters in a race.
Many people with allergies have lots of nasal congestion and find it hard to breath through their nose. It has been found that any attempt at getting air through the nose and slowing the breath down may actually help in decongesting the area. Nasal breathing is also important because the nasal sinuses produce nitric oxide which halts bacteria production, sterilizes the air, and helps ventilate the lungs, which are all keys to better health.(1)
A breathing practice called Buteyko method has the following tip to help break the habit of mouth breathing.
Find a light bandage tape, cut about a two inch piece and place it perpendicular lightly over your mouth while you are watching TV, or any seated activity and try to breath only through your nose.
Next apply the tape while you are doing any low level activity, like light housework, or walking but maintain nasal breathing.
Try this technique for maybe five minutes and work your way to having the tape on for an extended period of time. (Of course if using the tape is anxiety producing then it defeats the purpose, so only do this if you are comfortable with it.)
If you only want to do the bare minimum with your breath, concentrating on breathing through your nose will have a beneficial impact on your health.
2 - MUSCLES: POSITIONING THE DIAPHRAGM and INTERCOSTALS
The next element of healthy breathing involves your muscles. Some might have found that their breath rate was high or maybe their shoulders raise up when they breathe. These can be signs of inefficient breathing, probably because your main breathing muscles aren’t positioned to create a strong contraction. Breathing inefficiently is synonymous to blowing up a soccer ball with a tiny plastic pump, you barely blow up the ball (your lungs) and it takes ten times the energy in your attempt, not ideal. Let’s try to get some better breathing.
The main breathing muscles are your diaphragm along with the intercostals, which are the muscles between your ribs. The other supplementary muscles are mostly in the neck and should be used sparingly. To get a full and strong contraction for inhalation, the diaphragm should look like one of those half dome umbrellas nestled in the floor of your rib cage. The best way to get the diaphragm in this position is with the ribs down. The next exercise will demonstrate this.
In a seated position stick your chest out as much as you can, really puff it out. Try to take a deep breath from this position. Not super easy was it? Your diaphragm is not in an ideal position in this posture.
In that same seated position, tuck your pelvis(pretend you have a tail and tuck it between your legs). Put your hands on the sides of your chest with thumbs on your back ribs, and fingers on your lower ribs on the front.
Try to exhale as much as you can. At the end of the exhale you should feel your ribs lower and draw closer to your front hip bones.
Now take a deep breath in through your nose. Were you able to take a deeper breath and did you feel your ribs expand more? It should feel easier to inhale with this position.
The second position is the more ideal and more efficient position for breathing. If the second position didn’t feel effective for you there are always more options. Don’t get hung up on one breathing exercise if it doesn’t work for you. You have to find the technique that is good and comfortable for you. Here are a few other options.
90-90 breathing: Go on to your back with legs up on a chair seat. Use a pillow for your head. This position puts you automatically in the position of ribs down and you don’t have to focus on holding your posture (yes the diaphragm is a postural muscle as well) so you can concentrate on the breath. Put your hands in the same position as above and try three breaths that are a bit slower and deeper than a normal breath. See if you can start to feel the ribs expand on all sides as you breathe. Try to feel your back pushing into the floor, and your abdomen distending out as it helps expand the lungs with air.
Four point position breathing: Go on hands and knees, when you inhale try to round your back a little, this will put the ribs and hips closer to each other. As you breath try to feel air going towards your back, keeping your ribs down the whole time. Try five breaths here.
With each of these positions you want to try to keep ribs down but also try to feel air filling up your rib cage in every direction like a balloon.
Try any of these exercises for five minutes daily and or one minute bouts throughout the day. As a reminder put a stick it note saying “Breathe” on your computer. This will help habituate better positioning of your diaphragm for better breathing mechanics.
If you want to strengthen your diaphragm muscle, yes, like any other muscle it can be strengthened, look into these practices and products: balloon or straw breathing, power lung, and powerbreathe. Only use these products several weeks after you have got some of the basics down first. There is not extensive research done of some of these yet, so only use them if you find benefit for you.
3 - BREATH RATE
The third component of healthy breathing is the rate at which you breathe. Most people breathe on average 12-15 breaths a minute. This is the average rate and is fine, but slowing the rate a bit further has a plethora of health benefits such as increasing the efficiency of gas exchange, decreasing blood pressure, and increasing heart rate variability which is an indicator of a healthy nervous system.
Research has found maximal health benefits are reaped at six breaths per minute (2). Yes, six breaths a minute seems a big jump, and may be hard to attain for some and will definitely not happen overnight. Even though that goal seems lofty, any decrease in breath rate will still benefit. As with any exercise regime it’s always good to start slow and have manageable goals.
SLOWING YOUR RATE.
Sit as you are and measure your heart rate either yourself or use a HR monitor while breathing at your normal rate (chest monitors are the most accurate). Also note how you feel. Are you anxious, fidgety, relaxed, or nervous?
For the first minute, breathe in for three seconds and out for three seconds each. For the next minute breathe in for four and out for four seconds. If you still feel ok try to extend it to a five second inhale and exhale (6 breaths/minute). Take your heart rate again and note now you feel.
In most cases doing this slowing of breath rate will decrease your heart rate and calm your mind. You have awakened your parasympathetic nervous system which is the rest and digest side of things.
Anxiety and heightened alertness should be fleeting momentary events in our day, not the status quo. The better you are at managing stress with a resilient nervous system that can easily return to a calm state, the healthier you'll be.
Use your breath to gain enhanced control of your nervous system. This will enable you to handle more amounts of stress that come your way without the presence of the accompanying health effects of all the stressful events in your life.
Better breathing is one more tool to arm yourself against the chaos and busyness of the modern world. The best part of working on your breath is that it reaps huge health benefits without pills and side effects, and bonus, it's free.
Catherine Cowey M.A. is a personal trainer and post-rehabilitation expert working for over twenty years in the Bay Area. She teaches workshops and is a contributing writer for several fitness websites. You can find out more on her website www.fitwizesf.com.
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Chaitow, L., 2014. Recognizing and Treating Breathing Disorders. Elsevier, Edinburgh. 45-46.
Russo, M. et al. 2017. The Physiological Effects of Slow Breathing in the Healthy Human. Breathe Dec. 298-309.