How Breathing Better Can Improve Your Health
It’s something you do between 12 and 20 times a minute, and 17,000 to 30,000 times a day or more. We’re talking about breathing -- and if you’re not suffering from any type of congestion or illness, you probably don’t even realize you’re doing it.
But the fact that most people don’t even think twice about their breathing could mean that you’re missing out on something that could have a big impact on many different aspects of your body’s health and wellbeing. Here are four ways to use different breathing techniques to improve both your physical health and state of mind.
Breathing Techniques for Muscle Tension Relief
Try this breathing technique first thing in the morning - yes, even before your first cup of coffee. This morning breathing technique can help minimize muscle tension throughout the entire day.
Stand up straight and bend forward at the waist. Bend knees slightly, letting your arms hang limply, close to the floor.
Inhale slowly and deeply and return to a standing position by slowly rolling your body up, lifting your head last.
Exhale slowly as you return to your original position.
Stretch your muscles a little, and repeat.
Breathing Techniques for Side Pain
Many people who exercise, especially runners, experience intense side pain known as side stitches. Side stitches are basically diaphragm spasms, and like other types of muscle cramps, they’re thought to occur from the strain associated with the accelerated breathing from exercise. The good news is, the better you get at exercising, the less likely you’ll be to experience debilitating side cramps.
But in the meantime, practicing deep “belly breathing” while running in particular can reduce the stress on the supporting ligaments of the diaphragm and can help relieve side stitches. Belly breathing simply means you’re using your stomach instead of your chest. Chest breathing is associated with shallow breathing, while belly breathing is associated with deep, productive breathing.
Before you hit the trails with your running partner, here’s how to figure out how to belly breathe. Simply lie down on the floor and place a hand on your belly. Breathe deeply. If you feel your hand rise and fall slightly with your breathing, congrats, you’re belly breathing! If your chest is moving instead of your stomach, you’re not breathing deeply enough, and need to adjust.
While you’re running, keep breathing deeply and every once in a while, take a very deep breath and forcefully exhale, pushing all the air out of your lungs. While you exhale, drop your shoulders, shake out your arms, and relax. Take another deep breath and continue on your run.
Breathing Techniques for Increased Energy
If you’re used to heading straight for the coffee pot every morning, give this a try instead. The Stimulating Breath Technique is a caffeine-free way to give your body and mind an extra little boost.
This traditional breathing exercise is used often in yoga, and stimulates the diaphragm. It’s also known as the “Bellows Breath,” and signals the body to become more alert. It’s described as being able to energize the body, clarify the mind and “clear away the clouds.”
Here’s how to do it: Sit up tall, and relax your shoulders. Keep your mouth closed and inhale rapidly through your nose with quick, short breaths (exhale quickly as well). Try doing that for about 10 seconds. Take a 15-30 second break and breathe normally. Repeat several times.
Breathing Techniques for Relaxation
Do a Google search on ‘breathing techniques for relaxation’ and you’ll find a million people telling you a million ways to find peace through breathing - it’s enough to stress anyone out. What to make of it all? The truth is, breathing really can help relieve stress. Here’s how.
While many of us zone out in front of the television at night to relax, we’re not really effectively combating stress or reducing the harmful effects of stress. In order to do that, we need to activate the body’s natural relaxation response. The relaxation response is a physical state of deep rest that changes the physical and emotional responses to stress (e.g., decreases in heart rate, blood pressure, rate of breathing, and muscle tension).
But how do you activate the natural relaxation response? According to the American Institute of Stress, the answer’s easy. Focused, abdominal breathing. Abdominal breathing (or belly breathing, as we mentioned before) increases the supply of oxygen to your brain and stimulates the nervous system, causing a state of calmness.
Practicing focused breathing 20 to 30 minutes each day can work wonders in reducing stress and anxiety. And we’re not talking about taking a 30-minute nap. The point of focused breathing is to feel connected to your body, and be present and aware of the feeling of your worries drifting farther and farther away.
The AIS endorses several breathing techniques, including one called the Quieting Response, a quick, six-second exercise that utilizes visualization and deep breathing to stop stress in its tracks.
Per the AIS, here’s how to do it:
Smile inwardly with your eyes and mouth and release the tension in your shoulders. This is a powerful muscle release in the places where most people hold their muscles tense.
Imagine holes in the soles of your feet. As you take a deep breath in, visualize hot air flowing through these holes moving slowly up your legs, through your abdomen and filling your lungs.
Relax your muscles sequentially as the hot air moves through them up your body. When you exhale reverse the visualization so you “see” hot air coming out the same holes in your feet. Repeat throughout the day whenever you need to feel calm and relaxed.
From doctors and therapists to yogis and athletic trainers, many professionals in many different fields believe strongly in the benefits of deep, mindful breathing. While these techniques might have different effects on different people, you can never go wrong when you take a moment to calm the mind, and take a breath.
Special thanks to: Northwestern Medicine