by Karen L.Smith-Janssen
Breathing may be automatic, but that doesn't mean you can ignore it. "Most people are doing it wrong most of the time," says Amy Crawford-Faucher, MD, a family medicine specialist at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.
While most of us have checked our heart rate, we're guessing you didn't know there's an ideal respiratory rate, too. Depending on your body size and lung volume, at rest you should inhale 12 to 20 times a minute, says Heather Milton, MS, a senior exercise physiologist at the Sports Performance Center at NYU Langone Medical Center. She finds that people often breathe too shallow and fast. When you're exercising really hard, the number of breaths per minute will be in the 50s. "Maintaining proper breathing boosts oxygen-carrying capacity and blood flow, which you need to keep your muscles working well, your brain alert, and your concentration at its peak," she explains.
Taking some time to focus on your breathing could improve a slew of body functions, according to Patrick McKeown, author of The Oxygen Advantage. You can boost energy, increase your endurance, and reduce stress—and that could help you lose weight, he says. "The manner in which we breathe has an enormous effect on our health," McKeown says.
Yes, it's weird that you might have to change something you've done unconsciously since birth. But read on to find the biggest breathing mistakes everyone makes and how to correct them.
The Mistake: Not exhaling enough during exercise
This one is very common, says Milton. People unknowingly limit their breathing when they tense their shoulders and grimace during walking, running, or cycling, which means you'll tire much faster, Milton explains. Plus, shoulder and facial tension can limit deep and complete exhalations, preventing you from expelling carbon dioxide, she says. In short, you'll be less efficient and you'll tire much faster.
Holding your breath during strength training—a common technique—can dangerously raise blood pressure, says exercise physiologist Thomas Olson, PhD, an assistant professor of medicine and consultant in cardiovascular diseases at the Mayo Clinic. As a result, you might feel lightheaded or even pass out.
The Fix: Relax your shoulders and face when you do aerobic exercise; try breathing in through your nose and exhaling through your mouth to balance your respirations. During strength training or yoga, the Mayo Clinic recommends that you breathe out as you exert effort, like lifting a weight or pressing up into a pose, and breathe in on the easier part of the move.
The Mistake: Sucking in your gut
Fighting to keep a flat stomach means squeezing your diaphragm—the large, domed muscle that sits under your ribs and helps fill your lungs with air. When the diaphragm is able to fully contract, it draws valuable air into your lungs; as it completely relaxes, it pushes out the oxygen-depleted stale air. When you hold in your tummy throughout the day, you limit your diaphragm's range of motion: Breaths will be shallower, and weak exhalations will trap up to 30% of the leftover carbon dioxide in your lungs.
You need to set your diaphragm free, says Belisa Vranich, PsyD, a clinical psychologist and author who teaches The Breathing Class workshops in New York City. Those deep breaths can slow your heartbeat, reduce symptoms of anxiety, and lower blood pressure.
The Fix: Vranich trains her clients to use the full capacity of their lungs with this simple diaphragmatic breathing exercise: Lie with your back flat on the floor, one hand on your upper chest and the other just below your rib cage so you can feel your diaphragm move as you breathe. Breathe in so that your stomach moves out against your hand; keep your chest still and the hand on it unmoving. Contract your stomach muscles as much as you can as you exhale. It should feel like you're completely wringing your abs out. Repeat 10 to 15 times. Yes, this will tire out your abs. It should—it's a workout. Score one for the core.
The Mistake: You're slumped over your smartphone
We've all seen it: People hunched over laptops, computer monitors, smartphones. That stance can add 30 pounds of pressure to the cervical spine (hello, back pain) while driving your ribs into your diaphragm, says Vranich. Just like sucking in your gut, slumping compresses the diaphragm. Worse, shoulders that are hunched forward lead to increased tension: You're flexing those muscles in your upper back and neck, draining energy and encouraging shallow breathing, says Vranich. She literally taps on clients' shoulders during her sessions to remind them to relax.
The Fix: Set a timer on your phone to go off every 15 minutes or so as a reminder to check your posture. Straighten your spine and neck (imagine a string pulling your head toward the ceiling), let your shoulders drop and relax, and then take several slow, deep breaths. Within a few days, you'll notice that you're already in good posture when the timer goes off, and your breathing is deep and even. You can turn off the timer—but revisit this exercise every few weeks to avoid slipping back into slumpy habits.
The Mistake: You let stress dictate how you breathe
Stress shortens and speeds your breathing; short shallow breaths increase anxiety and stress. It's a vicious cycle, and it can have serious consequences. Research suggests that chronic stress leads to overeating and obesity: A University of Minnesota study of more than 12,000 people found that high levels of stress were linked to high-fat diets; a recent study published in Neuron revealed that stress can fire up the short-term reward system, making people much more likely to indulge in junk food.
The Fix: Set aside time for a short, meditative exercise. According to a study in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, simple breathing exercises helped tame stress and lower blood pressure in postmenopausal women. Olson suggests this simple technique: Inhale for 4 seconds, then exhale for 4 seconds. Repeat this at least 5 times—especially when you're feeling overwhelmed.
Even if you tackle only one of these issues, it's a step toward better breathing. You'll have more energy, feel calmer, and reduce stress—all with a few easy changes.