Everyday I am asked, “Am I breathing correctly? How do I know when to inhale and when to exhale? Does it really matter? Should I breathe fast or slow?”
These are important questions, because proper breathing techniques will ensure that you are getting the greatest physical and mental health beneï¬ts from your workout. Incorrect breathing patterns during exercise can cause fatigue, dizziness, and high blood pressure while working out. However, correct breathing patterns can lower your blood pressure, stress and heart rate. They can also make your exercise feel less strenuous and you will be more inclined to stay with your workout regimen.
A Bit of Lung Anatomy and Physiology
Breathing is important because every cell in your body needs the oxygen in the air you breathe to create the energy to keep your body alive. When you breathe in, you are inhaling oxygen which is the “fuel” to make your body cells work. When you breathe out, you are exhaling the byproduct of your body cellÊ¼s work–a gas called carbon dioxide, which is often referred to as “used” air. Carbon dioxide is exhaled with every breath you blow out of your lungs. When you breathe fresh air through your mouth and nose, it is forced through the windpipe or trachea and into your lungs.
We have two lungs, with the right lung being slightly larger than the left. The air moves from the windpipe through two large passageways, called the bronchi. A complex system of smaller tubes or bronchioles branch out from your bronchi to carry oxygen to the “working parts” of the lungs–the millions of air sacs or alveoli. These small sacs (like tiny folded balloons) have very thin walls that are full of blood vessels. The walls are so thin that the oxygen in the air can pass through them to enter the bloodstream and travel to cells in all the parts of your body.
Perhaps now it is clear why proper breathing is essential during exercise. Breathe properly (deeply and consistently), so you can get all the rich oxygenated blood necessary to feed your muscles and bones.
Generally, inhales are taken through the nostrils when you are performing a movement or posture that involves lifting up, opening up or expanding the body. We create space in our bodies when we inhale. Think of a ballon being blown up. As the ballon continues to ï¬ll with air, the balloon expands and more space is created inside the balloon.
Want to see for yourself? Â Stand tall and place your hands on your rib cage. Take a deep, slow breath through your nose (about 3-5 seconds long). Feel your ribcage swell and expand with the breath. As you exhale (also 3-5 seconds long) feel the ribcage and belly shrink as the breath leaves the body. Â When exhaling, squeeze as much breath out of your body as possible, through your nose. Gently hug your belly in toward your spine at the end of the exhale. Â You will feel your belly become smaller and tighter. Â By repeating this simple breathing exercise several more times you can actually begin to tighten and tone your belly muscles. Imagine and the beneï¬ts you can get from performing this breathing exercise everyday.
For a wonderful and energizing way to start your morning, try this exercise: stand tall with your arms at your side. As you circle your arms up and over your head take a deep, slow breath. Feel the space in your body. Exhale completely as you lower your arms back to your sides.
Holding the Breath
While it is important to have good breathing technique, donÊ¼t hold your breathe in order to keep your inhales and exhales in sync with your workout. It’s important that you be comfortable. If you are not sure when to inhale or exhale while you are working out, just remember to breathe any way you can. Holding your breath is like coming up against a brick wall, and without breath there is no life. When in doubt, just breathe!
A word about breathing during faster paced exercises (like spinning, running or dancing) as opposed to slower, more controlled exercises (like weight training, yoga or pilates): more vigorous cardio-based activities will usually have faster breathing rhythms. Simultaneous nostril and mouth breathing tends to be necessary during more rigorous activity (some would beg to differ with me about this). You be the judge. If you are paying attention to your body and your breath, you will know when a bit of mouth breathing is needed.
Beneï¬ts of Nostril Breathing
Nostril breathing has many beneï¬ts compared to mouth breathing. First, but not most important, mouth breathing looks strange. Have you ever seen someone gasping for air through their mouth? Think of a very old or sick person using shallow mouth breathing. Their breath becomes short and rapid. It is likely because their lungs and the supporting muscles are in a weakened state. Mouth breathers appear to be struggling for breath, in some cases “gasping” for air. It can be frightening to witness. It makes me feel like I’m suffocating just watching a person breathe this way.
Aside from looking better, nostril breathing also helps reduce stress and tension from the body and mind. This is why we may experience a general sense of calm following a series deep inhalation and exhalation exercises. By calming our mind we are better able to concentrate and focus our attention on the task at hand. Nostril breathing is necessary to bring ourselves into a quiet meditative state of being.
Nostril breathing can also help protect our health. The delicate hairs that line the inside of our nostrils help ï¬lter the air that comes into our body by removing airborne particles and other undesirable matter from entering the lungs. Nostril breathing warms and moistens incoming air to help protect our respiratory organs. It also helps to lower blood pressure and heart rate.
Initially, deeper nostril breathing requires awareness and practice, but eventually it will become second nature. If nostril breathing is too difï¬cult or uncomfortable for you, try rhythmically counting out loud (but not too loud). This can be a helpful way to support a constant ï¬‚ow of oxygen in and out of your body.
Remember, some kind of breathing is always better than no breathing. So breathe deeply and exhale completely!