Eight million. That’s the average amount of breaths you take per year. But it’s probably something you don’t think about very often.
Breathing is a visceral function. It happens automatically, the same as your heart beating. But unlike your heartbeat, your breathing is something you can also control. When you breathe, you take in oxygen and release carbon dioxide. It seems so simple, but there’s more to it than just that. “Inhaling energizes trillions of cells in your body,” says Tiffany Grimm, director of recovery at EXOS. “And exhaling accounts for 70% of the waste expelled by your body.”
Proper breathing has also been shown to improve cardiovascular function, increase exercise tolerance, promote muscle relaxation, and even help with blood pressure. So, how can you improve this vital function?
“One of the simplest things you can do to bring conscious awareness to your breathing is close your mouth and control your breathing through your nose,” says Omi Iwasaki, senior vice president of performance at EXOS. “Don’t worry too much about different cadences or routines, just try to control and slow down your breath.”
Meet the star player: your diaphragm
There are two types of breathing: apical and diaphragmatic. Apical breathing, which is typical among the general population, is characterized by upper-chest breathing and not using the diaphragm, a large muscle sitting at the base of your lungs that moves downward when you inhale to create more space for your lungs to expand and fill with air.
Diaphragmatic breathing is reflexive and natural when allowed to happen and is characterized by expansion of the rib cage and use of the diaphragm.
If you’ve gotten into a habit of apical breathing, here’s how to practice diaphragmatic breathing:
- Inhale and receive air into your torso. Feel your rib cage expand laterally and your lower belly distend. Fill your lungs from top to bottom as they expand in all directions.
- Exhale, allowing air to naturally release, without collapsing into bad posture. Return your rib cage, belly, and lungs to a relaxed state. Relax your jaw and shoulders.
- Repeat this exercise for 1 minute. Close your eyes if you need to focus.
Nix mouth breathing
Your nose is lined with cilia (hairs) and mucus that filter, warm, humidify, and treat the air entering your lungs, which makes your nose perfect for breathing. So, use it instead of your mouth.
“Nasal breathing helps stimulate the use of your diaphragm, which allows for more efficient transfer of oxygen from your lungs to your blood,” says Iwasaki. “Mouth breathing causes more movement in the upper chest and less in your diaphragm, and it doesn’t allow your lungs to fully expand or fill with as much air.”
It also produces more nitric oxide, while mouth breathing reduces nitric oxide by 50%. According to Iwasaki, nitric oxide is a potent bronchodilator and vasodilator, which helps decrease blood pressure, increase calming, and significantly improve the lungs oxygen-absorbing capacity. Nitric oxide is also known to have antimicrobial and microbicidal properties, which is critical in defending against infection.
Fun fact: You can increase nitric oxide production by 15 times through humming. Humming speeds up the exchange of air between the sinuses and nasal cavity. Try it out for yourself with bhramari or “bee breath” from pranayama yoga.
How to start breathing better
Try a breathing assessment like this one to evaluate your starting point. Then use these breathing exercises from Iwasaki to improve your breathing.
- Lie down on your back. Your head and shoulders should be comfortable and relaxed. You can use a small towel roll or pillow to make your head and neck more comfortable.
- Place a large book (or a stack of small books) on your abdomen, right above the belly button.
- On the inhale, take a large, controlled nasal breath with the goal of making the books rise. You may find that your lower back comes away from the floor when you inhale. Focus on keeping your neck and shoulders completely relaxed and focus on expanding your belly.
- On the exhale, try to exhale through your nose or through pursed lips. The focus is on seeing and feeling the books lower. If your lower back came off of the floor when you inhale, you should feel the lower back come back down to the floor when you exhale.
- Repeat for five minutes.
- The main goal and focus on this movement is to get into a comfortable cadence and feel that your belly is the primary location of movement.
Cat and cow
- Start comfortably on the floor on your hands and knees.
- On the inhale, take a large, controlled nasal breath and focus on expanding your belly 360 degrees. Push the belly toward the floor and extend your spine in the cow yoga pose. Try to take in as much air as possible.
- Exhale through your nose or through pursed lips and make sure your midsection is hollowed out, head is relaxed and dropped, and your back is rounded toward the ceiling, like a cat arching its back. Squeeze out all of the air possible.
- Repeat for 5 minutes.
Rock and roll
- Sit on a chair or cross-legged on the floor.
- On the inhale, take a large, controlled nasal breath and expand your belly 360 degrees as you lean your body forward, allowing your pelvis to rock forward and your spine to extend. Try to take in as much air as possible on the inhale.
- Exhale through your nose or through pursed lips while rocking your pelvis backward, as you lean back as if you were slouching. Focus on contracting your belly, narrowing your waist, and exhaling as much air out as possible.
- Repeat for five minutes.
Looking for more ways to optimize your health? Check out our 20 health and performance tips that stand the test of time.
About the AuthorMore Content by Kelsey Webb