How to breathe life into your body
From sport to singing, sleep problems to stress, better breathing can change your life, says Maria Fitzpatrick.
It is our life force, so it’s no wonder “a breath of fresh air” has come to mean relief. But are we harnessing it the way we were designed to?
Breathing “properly” and to our full potential is not only good for our overall wellbeing, it’s increasingly seen as having a key role in alleviating all sorts of modern ailments, from anxiety to exhaustion.
Increased awareness and control over our breathing mechanism, and using our lungs to their full capacity, can lead to all sorts of benefits – from pain and stress relief to improved energy levels, enhanced athletic performance and singing ability, and even gaining control over a stutter.
HOW TO BREATHE
Many of us have got into the habit of “shallow breathing” – caused by a hurried lifestyle, stress, poor posture and lack of physical activity. Diaphragmatic breathing, sometimes referred to as deep breathing or abdominal breathing, means inhaling deep into the lungs by flexing the diaphragm (rather than shallowly, using just the upper rib cage); it expands the abdomen rather than the chest. Many health and fitness experts believe it is a healthier, more efficient way to breathe, lengthening and deepening our breaths, increasing oxygen levels in the blood, raising energy in the body, relaxing intestinal muscles, and creating a sense of relaxation as the heart rate, cortisol (the stress hormone) and blood carbon dioxide levels drop.
Practise as often as you can until it feels natural
Sit up as straight as possible, shoulders back, one hand on your upper chest, the other on your abdomen just above waist. Good posture allows for greater expansion of the lower rib cage
INHALE slowly through your nose to the count of five. Feel the hand on your abdomen moving outwards. The hand on your chest should not move
Pause for one count
EXHALE slowly. The most therapeutic aspect is the long exhalation, which should be twice the length of the inhalation. Feel the hand on your abdomen moving in as you breathe out
Pause for one count
Repeat four times
PAIN RELIEF AND PANIC: SLOW DOWN A clinical study this year, by researchers at Arizona State University, found that taking half as many breaths per minute (six instead of the average 12-18) made the pain experienced by patients with fibromyalgia – a condition that causes pain for which there is no obvious cause – less intense. One theory suggests that slowing breathing has a direct impact on the sympathetic nervous system, which helps control blood flow and skin temperature, blocking some of the pain response.
“If we breathe too fast, when we’re in pain, anxious, stressed or angry, this causes chemical changes in the blood,” explains Dr Dan Rutherford, our Lifecoach GP. “We can experience these changes as feeling light-headed, or getting tingling and cramps in the fingers, toes and around the mouth.”
Someone panicking can take as many as 30 breaths a minute. This is “hyperventilation”.
“I well remember getting it as a medical student when I developed a painful kidney stone in the night,” Dr Rutherford says. “Initially I could not understand why my hands and fingers were in spasm, then I remembered my physiology lectures, deliberately slowed my breathing rate and the 'tetany’ symptoms disappeared.”
If you’re hyperventilating, re-breathing into a paper bag (breathing back in some of the excess carbon dioxide you’ve exhaled) has the same effect and calms you down fast.
BREATHING AND EXERCISE
“Not breathing correctly can inhibit performance,” says Tony Gallagher, our Life Coach fitness expert, “because if you are not receiving enough oxygen you are not feeding your muscle cells enough and therefore won’t perform to your maximum.”
One of the main challenges is just remembering to breathe when you’re concentrating hard, he explains. People often hold their breath, or take in too much oxygen and hyperventilate.
“Beginners need to focus on their breathing particularly,” Gallagher says, “but more experienced exercisers can get their 'second wind’ quite effortlessly. This will come with experience as your body and mind get used to the demands being placed on them. Breathing predominantly with your chest does not permit you to get an optimal amount of oxygen as easily as diaphragmatic breathing does.”
TONY’s BREATHING TIPS
Generally you exhale on the effort, if, say, doing weights, karate or boxing, and inhale on the “return”.
For cardiovascular exercise, the aim is to breathe without a struggle. Some people will achieve this by focusing on the ratio of the speed at which they breathe out to that of inhaling. It gives them a focus to balance the intake of oxygen with the release of carbon dioxide.
The aim, in part, of any warm-up to an exercise routine is to increase the body temperature gradually. This should involve the progressive stepping up of effort, which will give you a chance to correlate your breathing patterns smoothly to the required effort.
The main thing is to start off slowly and progress gradually. Your body needs to warm up and you need to give yourself a chance to reach faster rates of breathing in a controlled way. In sports that require explosive power actions, it is particularly important to be warmed up and your lungs well challenged before you can perform in a safe and effective manner.
Yvie Burnett, opera singer, and the vocal coach on ITV’s The X Factor says: “When singers breathe well, the air flow to the vocal folds is consistent. This prevents strain and 'pushing’ of the voice, so it lasts longer. The sound is more consistent, and controlled. The main mistake is lifting the shoulders — known as 'clavicular breathing’. Switching to diaphragmatic breathing takes concentrated practice.”
YVIE’S BREATHING TIPS
Lie on the bed, put your hand on your tummy and relax. Work out what your body is doing naturally and that is the correct way to breathe for singing. Your tummy expands – that is you taking a breath; as you use the breath, the tummy goes in. When you need another breath it comes back out. The shoulders are not used. Sing a song lying like this. Once mastered, you will never look back – but remember to practice.
The number one tip, however, is never consciously take a breath. When we talk, we don’t stop to take a breath, we just do it. The action of taking a breath is tension; expand your tummy at all the places where you need a breath.
Yvie Burnett’s 'Vocal Trainer’ app for the iPhone is out now
WHAT’S THE ALTERNATIVE?
Although the basic premise of Buteyko, that conditions like asthma are due to “chronic over-breathing”, is widely disputed, there is anecdotal evidence that people who carry out “controlled breathing” Buteyko exercises regularly experience fewer symptoms (www.buteyko.co.uk).
'TRANSFORMATIONAL’ OR 'TURBO’ BREATHING
Invented 30 years ago, and practised by Deepak Chopra, this involves breathing in huge amounts of oxygen quickly to achieve a euphoric reaction, seen as being therapeutic for depression and anxiety (www.transformationalbreathing.com).
Yoga strips away stress and anxiety by incorporating calming “breathing awareness” routines that emphasise postures that lengthen the breath and slow the heart rate (www.yogatherapy.org).
Correctly timed lateral or “thoracic” breathing (into the sides and back of the rib cage) is fundamental to Pilates. According to Lynne Robinson, founder of Body Control Pilates, this is because it calms you, helps you focus on the moment and facilitates “core stability”(www.bodycontrol.co.uk).
NOT JUST A HOLIDAY FEELING
The Victorians were right to “take the sea air” as a form of recuperation. Sea spray – and, therefore, sea air – is full of negative hydrogen ions, charged particles that neutralise damaging free radicals (positive ions) and improve our ability to absorb oxygen. The negative ions can also affect levels of serotonin, the feelgood hormone, making us less prone to anxiety and improving our quality of sleep. Research at one of Israel’s top medical institutes has shown that sufferers of disorders such as cystic fibrosis (where mucous clogs the lungs), respiratory problems and pulmonary disorders breathe easier when exposed to sea air, particularly at the Dead Sea, where there’s a very high level of oxygen and minerals in the air.
STUB IT OUT
When a smoker quits, the body quickly starts to clean itself by coughing up the debris in the respiratory system that restricts breathing. Carbon monoxide is eliminated within days of giving up and lung function can improve by 10 per cent within three to six months. Dizzy spells are common and the chest can feel tight, because the lungs are taking in more air and oxygen than they are used to. Breathing becomes easier within 72 hours as the bronchial tubes relax, and energy levels rise. Deep breathing is an effective way to tackle symptoms of nicotine withdrawal, such as cravings and irritability.