Do Breathing Exercises Work?
The Fitness Fixer
The Fitness Fixer

Do Breathing Exercises Work?

Often the simple act of breathing is made into a complicated ritual. People take classes to learn how to breathe in this nostril and out that nostril and four times slowly this way, and eight hundred times quickly that way. All you need is to remain simple. In. Out. Try a nice breath now. This is often more than many people do. Check yourself when at work, opening mail, putting things away. Do you hunch your shoulders and hold your breath, straining or breathing shallowly and quickly, just to hurry through and get it done? Keep breathing normally in and out.

It was previously thought that lung function declined steadily with each passing year after age 30. It also used to be thought by some in exercise science that respiratory muscles could not be trained, or that the highest amount of air moving in and out with exercise would not change except to diminish with aging. Now it is established that the breathing muscles of the chest and abdomen are muscles like any other. You need to exercise them. You can improve function at any age.

Exercising your respiratory system through healthy breathing is important to reduce many respiratory problems, and is part of staying in shape and able to do normal activities without getting out of breath. How do you do this? To exercise your respiratory system, following are three main things to try:

1. Exercise your whole body with biking, skating, skiing, running, skipping, hiking, dancing, and other fun ways to move.

2. You can exercise your breathing right now while sitting or standing:

  • Close or purse your lips loosely (draw them together at the sides) and breathe in against the resistance.
  • Breathe out slowly without resistance. Repeat several times.
  • Try the above, breathing in more and more quickly.
  • Allow enough time (a few seconds) between each resisted breath so that you do not become dizzy.
  • As you get better at this over time, increase resistance by how firmly you close your lips together.

You can buy expensive respiratory muscle trainers in fitness catalogs to provide resistance for breathing muscle training. You can also get the same effect yourself by breathing in through pursed lips or trying to breathe through your sleeve (pressing your mouth against your forearm). Resistance breathing exercises have been long practiced in the martial arts in exercises of "sanchin," yoga, and some forms of chi kung breathing, which tighten the throat (or hold the nose) for resistance instead of the lips. Some scuba-divers and breath-hold free divers practice various techniques, hoping to increase breathholding endurance and underwater time. Not all of these practices are a good idea for divers, to be covered in future posts.

3. Periodically see how much air you can breathe in and out in one breath, both with and without resistance:

  • See how quickly you can inhale fully.
  • Then how fast you can exhale fully.
  • Regularly exercise heavily so that you need to breathe hard for extended periods.

Don't "overbreathe" (hyperventilate) by taking huge breaths in and out while at rest. That changes your body chemistry, which can make you dizzy or cause temporary limb tingling. The dizziness from hyperventilation is often taught in yoga, martial arts, and meditation breathing classes as something healthful. However, it is not physically beneficial.

Healthful breathing patterns are important when not doing strenuous exercise. When chopping vegetables for dinner, do you hunch your shoulders and hold your breath during the knife stroke? Instead, make the rhythmic chopping a meditation and an easy exercise with healthful body positioning. When you hang up laundry or put away groceries, notice if you tense up and hold your breath? When you move during any action, check to see if you tighten muscles and hold your breath trying to get it done. Lower your shoulders. Untense your muscles. Enjoy the task. Breathe.

For healthful breathing during life activities, remember to let your belly expand to breathe in. Don't just raise your shoulders and chest. Don't pull your belly inward when breathing in; let it come outward as air fills your lungs. Take a full breath in now and try it. Relax and feel good.



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About the Author


Dr. Bookspan is an award-winning scientist whose goal is to make exercise easier and healthier.