Why breathing is a skill (and how to improve yours)

It sounds obvious to say that breathing is crucial. We do it all day without thinking. But even breathing can be improved – with astounding results for your health and wellbeing.

The facts behind the breathwork trend

“Breathwork” is a big buzz in health and fitness circles, but it’s nothing new. Breathwork just means setting aside time to get intentional about how you breathe. By doing regular breathwork sessions, you can improve your lung and diaphragm function to get more oxygen into your system. Breathwork as a practice is also a calming way to tone your “rest and digest” vagus nerve (more about that in a bit).

Why is breathing so important

Breathing is one of the body’s autonomic functions, meaning we do it without having to think about it. But just because it happens automatically, we shouldn’t ignore it.

Other autonomic functions include digestion and blood pressure, and we certainly know these things should be looked after if we want to be in good health. The same goes for breathing.

Why aren’t we breathing properly?

Those of you with kids will know how well babies and small children breathe – you can see their little tummies puff in and out (a clear sign that they are breathing from the diaphragm muscle).

Over time, we lose this natural ability to breathe properly. The diaphragm and rib muscles get deconditioned because of poor posture and sedentary lifestyle. And we’re told to “hold our stomach in”, which restricts the diaphragm and leads to shallow breaths. This in turn creates a habit of chest breathing, which is suboptimal for physical health and can lead to a feeling of anxiety too.

How does your body breathe?

Start thinking of oxygen as a nutrient and you’ll appreciate how important breathing is for health. Every function of the body needs oxygen, and breathing is the only way we can get it.

Your lungs are responsible for bringing in oxygen and removing carbon dioxide, but the path of breathing is more complex. To inhale, you tighten and relax the diaphragm and other muscles of the rib cage. The mucous membranes of your nose and mouth warm air and trap dirt and dust. The air passes into your trachea and then goes left and right into the bronchi, which divide again and again into smaller airways which end up as the alveoli of your lungs. There are ~300 million alveoli in your lungs, all surrounded by blood vessels that carry the oxygen around your body. How can help our amazing body to breathe better?

5 benefits of better breathing

Every system in the body relies on oxygen, from brain function to digestion and everything in between. Better breathing will help you think clearly, sleep better, digest food more efficiently, perform at a higher level and have more mental clarity.

Lower your heart rate

Learning to breathe better gives you a valuable tool to regulate your heart rate, which is useful in recovery from exercise and for managing stressful feelings. (1)

Control blood pressure

High blood pressure is a huge health risk and an underlying cause for many life-limiting diseases. Breathing better can help you to manage high blood pressure and the stresses that can cause it. (2) 

Manage stress levels

We all know that breathing mindfully is a lovely way to manage stress, but few of us take the time to actually do it. Introducing just a few minutes of breathwork into your day can have a powerful effect on stress and its physical and mental toll. (3)

Get more oxygen

When you improve the various physical elements of the breath pathway, you naturally get more oxygen into your bloodstream which has a direct impact on every physical function including brain, gut, and muscles. Breath control work has the official thumbs-up from the scientific community. (4) 

Tone your vagus nerve

The vagus nerve is the longest of the 12 cranial nerves and part of the parasympathetic (“rest and digest”) nervous system. Our high-stress lifestyles have a significant negative impact on this important nerve. But a small amount of breathwork is one of the best ways to restore its proper function. (5)

Easy daily breathing exercises

Morning breathing

Not all breathwork is about calming and relaxing. This energising breathwork is a great way to wake the brain up with extra oxygen when you need to perform well.

The normal respiratory rate is around 12-16 breaths

per minute. But this exercise has you breathing at ~20 breaths per minute to expand the ribs and boost oxygen levels.

How to: sit upright or stand and use the lower abs to force a sharp exhale through your nose. Do 2-3 rounds of 20 breaths.

Calming breathwork

This exercise will calm your nervous system and shift you out of shallow chest breathing, giving your lungs the chance to expand and relax. Ideal whenever you need to relax or wind down for sleep.

How to: sit or lie down quietly with your eyes closed. Breathe in through the nose for a count of 4, expanding your chest and then your stomach. Exhale through the nose for a count of 6-8, emptying the air from your stomach then your chest.

Box breathing  

This is a breathing pattern you might recognise from yoga. The slow count encourages you to slow down and focus on breathing for a meditative experience.

How to: sit quietly and breathe in through the nose for 4 breaths, hold for a count of 4, and exhale through the mouth for 4. Keep this going for at least 8 rounds (more if you can).

Coach Joseph Webb.

‘The number one rated Personal Trainer In Henley and Oxfordshire’

References used in todays blog:

1) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5709795/

2) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6470142/

3) https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/27995346/

4) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6137615/

5) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6189422/

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