Breathe in, breathe out. Doesn't sound that hard, does it? It's so easy, you can do it in your sleep! But experts say that there's a right and wrong way to breathe, and better breathing may give us better emotional and physical health. According to the Wall Street Journal, better breathing can also help you live longer.
In the 1980s, researchers with the Framingham Study, a 70-year research program focused on heart disease, gathered two decades of data from 5,200 subjects, crunched the numbers and discovered that the greatest indicator of life span wasn’t genetics, diet or the amount of daily exercise, as many had suspected. It was lung capacity. Larger lungs equaled longer lives. Because big lungs allow us to get more air in with fewer breaths, they save the body from a lot of unnecessary wear and tear.
There is a right way and a wrong way to breathe. Who knew? Chest breathing or shorter breaths that lift and lower the chest area are the most shallow types of breaths and breathing this way is commonly done through the mouth. Diaphragm breathing is much slower and deeper, filling the lungs to greater capacity and is usually done through the nose.
According to Scientific American, the benefits of slower breathing increase the activity of the vagus nerve, part of the nervous system that controls and measures the activity of many internal organs. When the vagus nerve is stimulated, the body is calm, the heart rate slows and becomes regular, blood pressure goes down and muscles relax. When the vagus nerve tells the brain of these changes, it, too, relaxes. This is why deeper, slower breathing improves both the body and the mind.
Paying attention to breathing also eases stress and negative emotions by activating the brain's regulatory area (the prefrontal cortex) and reducing activity in the emotional area of the brain, according to a study at the Technical University of Munich performed by Anselm Doll and his colleagues in 2016.
1. Use Your Nose
Using your nose helps filter the air with warmth and humidity. There are two ways to breathe—through your mouth and your nose, but the nostrils filter and provide warm and more humid air in a way that the mouth cannot says Mark Courtney, a respiratory therapist with American Lung Association’s Lung HelpLine.
2. Breathe Into Your Stomach and Back
Above your stomach is a muscle called the diaphragm. As you breathe deeply, your diaphragm contracts, allowing your lungs to fill fully with air. You can feel the expansion horizontally as well throughout the ribcage and into your back. Courtney says "It is the most efficient way to breathe, as it pulls down on the lungs, creating negative pressure in the chest, resulting in the air flowing into your lungs.” Singers use this type of breathing and over time with practice, this method of breathing increases lung capacity.
3. Breathe 5 Seconds in and 5 Seconds Out
An exercise called “cardiac coherence” involves inhaling for five seconds and then exhaling for five seconds. Some versions of this technique recommend spending more time on exhaling than inhaling.
“Pursed lip breathing,” or breathing out with your lips pursed together is a good technique for stress release as well as lung disorders like COPD.
4. Stay Active
Regular exercise keeps your lungs healthy as well. Not overeating will ensure your stomach is not restricting your diaphragm’s movement.
5. Your Body Knows
"Along with the kidneys, the lungs keep the blood's pH in a very tight range to allow all body functions to occur," he says. "There are receptors in our body that constantly monitor the blood's oxygen and pH levels. It automatically sends signals to our brain to tell us how often and how deep to breathe,” says Courtney.
Your breath should be smooth, controlled, relaxed and silent/quiet.
Breathing exercises can be done lying down or sitting.
So spend a little time tonight (and every day) really thinking about your breathing and using these simple techniques. It's a great strategy for a happier, calmer and healthier you.
about the author
Multiple myeloma patient, sister-in-law to AML patient, patient advocate, wife, mom of 6. Believer that patients can help accelerate a cure by joining their disease communities and contributing their patient stories to advance a cure. Founder of the HealthTree Foundation.