A Breathing Practice for Modern Times

Women meditating on a rock by a lake

You have probably seen, heard, or read about it? the practice of breathing and wonder why there is a sudden interest in how we breathe? We already do it every day, right, without thinking! Why even consider doing anything breath related?

Whether for health, fitness or performance, the way you breath could influence how you move, stand, or run, or affect your health. Understanding how the body works has led to further research into how we breath and how it could affect you. This has led to different breathing practices for improvement.

Women meditating in seated position

Breathing for health has been used for thousands of years, through the likes of meditation, yoga, and the practice of tai chi. But our picture of people spending long hours in meditation poses may not have helped us towards a breathing practice and we were unsure of why you would want to practice it. It is in the last few years that experts and researchers in the field of respiration are showing us how we can improve our health through breath training. Our modern take on exercise has not concentrated so much on how we breathe but more on the physical gains for health, missing out on what breath training can do for us in the way of fitness and health. We now therefore look at how we can introduce breathing exercises into our daily schedule to help in our health and performance in modern times. Knowing the ‘why’ can paint a different picture for us when considering breathing exercises.

Women breathing on floor on back with arms stretched and knees bent
Breathing practice

Breathing exercises can help with stress, in a stressful situation try this, a physiological sigh - taking two breaths in followed by one long breath out has been found to ease our stress repeat it around 5 times. The reason for this is that this breathing pattern allows the body to offload CO2. Your brain is linked to the body, spinal cord, and nervous system, and is constantly looking for sensations from the body, perceptions, feelings, thoughts, or behaviours, to make decisions and function effectively. Your breath is linked to your nervous system. Breathing IN affects your sympathetic nervous system which is related to excitement, heart rate and respiration rate. Breathing OUT influences the parasympathetic nervous system which is linked to a decrease in heart rate, rest, recovery, and digestion. Your emotions are also linked to your breathing. When you are frightened your breathing rate speeds up, and your eyesight become narrowed and more focused. When you feel safe your breathing rate reduces and a wider vision returns.

Group of runners

The way we breathe can also influence how we move, stand, and perform in sport. Cardio training like running or cycling has always been used to develop both the cardio and respiratory systems of the body together for improved fitness. One way to monitor this is through a heart rate monitor which has become the norm and many programs have been developed guided by heart rate training. What you never hear of, is many people using their breath to monitor how they are running. When running becomes an effort whether a beginner or long-standing athlete, it is often blamed on their fitness level or not enough practice. Oxygen delivery to the muscles is not usually considered but may be a factor in fatigue and how long you can keep running for.

Oxygen in the body is monitored by the CO2 levels in the blood not the Oxygen levels, which seems strange I know. The brain can change your breathing rate breath by breath to regulate your CO2/O2 levels. Exercise will increase carbon dioxide build up in the blood, when this happens your breathing rate will need to be adjusted to compensate. Breathing too much can reduce your CO2 levels and cause the receptors which monitor the changes to adjust to this new level, and hence reduce your tolerance to CO2 over time, if this happens it can reduce the amount of oxygen getting to the cells, which may result in fatigue.

A quick check on your C02 tolerance, is to take a breath in and slow breath out and time how long you can breathe out for – under 25 seconds, then breathing exercises should help make a difference, even athletes have been found to have a score low. In the latest research on Breaking 2, (2-hour marathon) it has shown that the top runners needed to have great running economy and breath regulation - needing to stay in the aerobic zone throughout the marathon to be able to keep up the pace for the whole time.

How you breathe may also affect how you stand, your biomechanics and performance. Are you a chest breather? Belly breather or diaphragm breather? A chest breather is usually a mouth breather, this can be related to over breathing or having a forward head posture, where you will be taking in more oxygen into the lungs then actually need and therefore lowering C02 levels in the body. This can reduce oxygen delivery to the muscles, as C02 is required in the tissues to allow red blood cells (haemoglobin) to drop off the oxygen and return with the CO2 to the lungs where it is then expelled. If C02 levels are lower than required for optimum efficiency, then the oxygen cannot be dropped off and muscles are not going to perform as well.

Belly breathing depending on who describes this can have different meanings, but usually its all about using the belly for establishing the breathing mechanism, taught this way to reduce chest breathing. Often seen as the centre of the body from a martial art perspective to focus on breathing about 2 inches below the belly button. But belly breathing can also mean using the diaphragm, used as a coaching point rather than being physiologically/anatomically correct.

A diaphragm breather is associated with nose breathing, which gives better regulation of O2 and CO2 levels, being able to use nitric oxide in the paranasal sinuses to help with vasodilation of the blood vessels and has links with heart health, utilising the lower part of the lungs with diaphragmatic breathing where blood flow is known to be better for gaseous exchange when standing and has also seen help with asthma, diabetes and snoring as well as reducing fatigue.

Hopefully this will help you to see a few different reasons why breathing and the way you breathe can have an impact on your health and performance and should become an everyday practice.

If you have any medical issues or on any medication you should always seek medical advice before commencing on any breathing program.

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