4 Basic Breathing Tips for Better Health and Performance
Updated: Nov 16, 2020
I discuss breathing quite a bit, as it is fundamental to everything we do, and has the potential to greatly improve our health and well being if we simply focus on improving it. Further, it requires no fancy gadgets and can be practiced anywhere, any time, yet the benefits are immense.
But in a world where information is so readily accessible, advice can get overwhelming and confusing. Although all the things that happen as we breathe are quite complex--far beyond simply taking in oxygen and expelling carbon dioxide--how we apply breathing to improve our health and performance can be made very simple.
Here are 4 basic ways you can apply it to everyday life without ever having to know what is going on under the hood.
1. Just be aware.
That’s it, that's step 1. Just pay attention to how you’re breathing.
For example, you may have heard of sleep apnea, which is the temporary cessation of breathing during sleep and has clear links to health problems(1), but you probably haven’t heard of “email apnea” or “screen apnea.” This is a term coined in 2012 that refers to the temporary cessation of breathing while in front of a screen. According to one report, about 80% of people either shallow breathe or intermittently hold their breath while in front of a screen without even knowing it.(2) This shallow breathing has real implications for health, including memory impairments, increased blood pressure, chronic fatigue, increased risk of infection, and more.
So next time you are in front of a screen, whether it be your phone, tablet, computer, or television, check in on your breathing, then slow it down.
2. Whenever possible, breathe through your nose.
That thing in the middle of your face isn’t just for smelling stuff. It’s a key component to your respiratory system and has major implications for your health. Among other things, it is a first line of defense for your immune system, as it generates nitric oxide (NO).
NO was first discovered to play a role in biological function of humans in the 1980s and researchers are still uncovering its full role in our health, but there is a clear and rapidly growing body of evidence that shows a link between NO levels and health. More specifically, those with chronic health issues tend to have lower levels of NO and tend to breathe through the mouth more.
Nose breathing also regulates the breathing rate, lowers blood pressure, warms and filters the air, and has been shown to increase aerobic endurance, as it improves tissues' abilities to utilize oxygen.(3)(4)(5)
Conversely, the mouth is for speaking and eating and is only adapted to breathing as a last resort. Unfortunately in modern society, it has become a first resort. Since nose breathing is a natural filter, when we mouth breathe we lose that. So without the natural filter provided by nasal breathing, our brain sends a signal to create another line of defense—mucus. And thus begins a cycle: mouth breathe, more mucus is created, which makes our nose stuffy, which makes it harder to breathe through the nose, which leads to more mouth breathing, more mucus, and so on. The mucus itself isn't a bad thing, as it is a normal biological response. It's the excess that creates problems.
But here’s something to try to help clear a stuffy nose. (While I hesitate to use myself for examples, I can personally attest to this working 100% of the times I have done it to improve airflow through my nose when it feels a bit stuffy. But of course try it for yourself and see.)
3. With more challenging exercise, when nose-breathing becomes too difficult, transition to out through the mouth, in through the nose.
I can't write this article without including something about what to try while exercising, of course.
Obviously you won’t be able to nose breathe 100% of the time, particularly if you already have a difficult time breathing through your nose. This could be for a number of reasons such as chronic congestion, a deviated septum, or small nasal valves, for example.
But like most anything else, it can be improved through focused practice over time. And the closer we can get to breathing through the nose as often as possible, the better.
Next time you are exercising, try nose breathing as long as you possibly can. When things get a bit more challenging, switch to out through the mouth, in through the nose. Once you get to the point where you have to mouth-breathe, stop to rest. Slow your breathing rate and get back to nose breathing as quickly as you can, then continue on with your workout in that fashion.
This may be frustrating at first, particularly for those who have developed an affinity toward high intensity exercise. But with patience and practice, it will become easier to do over time, and you may even notice things like less soreness, more enjoyment of exercise, and faster recovery times.
4. Slow your breathing rate, silence your breathing.
As mentioned earlier, chronic health conditions and increased breathing rate are strongly correlated. One simple technique you can use to reduce muscle tension, shift into a more calm state, improve memory and focus, and improve sleep quality is to simply take slow, quiet breaths. In our technology-crazed world, there are apps out there that allow you to set times for an inhale, exhale, and hold on either end, but I suggest starting with something as simple as a silent 5 second inhale, 5 second exhale, with a pause after the exhale for however long you feel comfortable. Many techniques call for a hold after the inhale, but a pause after the exhale helps get us into more of what can be called a “parasympathetic state,” or essentially a state of relaxation.
You may find that you can’t hold the end of the exhale for very long before getting that urge to breathe in, but just start small. Only hold as long as you can without having to take a huge breath in. Breathing silently can help keep the breathing relaxed.
So there you have it. My first 5 basic tips to use your breath to help you move and feel better. Improving your breathing won't solve all of your problems, but if you simply focus on these few things, they can get you a long way toward improved health and performance.
Much of this information was originally sourced from the book "Breath" by James Nestor.
(5) Chaitow, Bradley, Gilbert, Recognizing and Treating Breathing Disorders, 2nd edition, 46-47 (Elsevier, 2014)