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HealTHis: Supplemental - Breathing

The HealTHis series concluded recently with the biological articles. In addition to the articles for each of the six main headings, some supplemental articles added to the concepts proposed, the first one being breathing and its impact on health and fitness. That article is below:

Breathing is about as natural an action as the body performs, right? Well, almost. Whilst most of our breathing happens automatically, controlled by the autonomic nervous system, we can exert control, and even temporarily override the action altogether and hold our breath. Once we assume control of the action, this falls under the control of the somatic nervous system. Breathing needs to be predominantly on autopilot, so that we can breathe when we sleep, for example, but the ability to hold our breath is also very useful. This allows us to fully submerge ourselves in water, and avoid breathing in harmful fumes to mention just a couple of uses.

How we breathe, how much we breathe and how often we breathe can have a huge impact on our health, and fitness, and if approached with some conscious attention, the mechanism can be quickly improved to be more efficient.

Here are my 5 tips to breathe better, for fitness and health improvements that are easily noticeable:

Breathe through your nose: Not just sometimes, always. Well, almost always. Nasal breathing filters, humidifies and warms the air we breathe in, providing a better quality of air to our lungs. It also picks up nitric oxide from the reserve of the gas kept under the nasal cavity. Long story short, this has been shown to expand blood vessels and therefore increasing blood flow, which in turn increases oxygenation. More oxygenated blood is therefore available to the muscles that need it!

Don’t gasp: The temptation when you’re exercising is to gulp air in, and therefore breathe out hard! This expels too much carbon dioxide from the lungs which, whilst a waste byproduct of metabolism, is also required as a gateway to allow oxygen into the bloodstream. Put simply, you’re sucking more oxygen in, but your body can’t use it.

Don’t breathe deeply: You can begin forcing adaptation in the respiratory system, and therefore make it more efficient, by returning to normal breathing as quickly as possible after a period of exertion. In addition, the body is set up to operate at normal rates of breathing, not with deep breaths. Deep breaths are less efficient and therefore a big gulp of air prior to a big lift, jump or breath hold is actually less useful than taking a ‘sip’ of air. In addition, as noted above, you’re removing too much carbon dioxide.

Train your breathing: Whilst there are many elaborate methods by which to achieve a variety of adaptations, I’d suggest something quite simple to start with. Once or twice per day, for a period of 5-10 minutes, cycle 3 nasal breaths with a 3-5 second breath hold after an OUTWARD breath. This creates a thirst for air and builds a more efficient system. The impulse to breathe is signalled to the brain by our carbon dioxide levels, NOT our need for oxygen, therefore performing breath holds after an outward breath will create a better adaptation than after an inward one. Once you can achieve an outward breath hold of 40+ seconds, you can begin incorporating breath holds into your training routine, especially during runs.

Breathe with your diaphragm: The diaphragm is the muscle which sits underneath your lungs. It draws the lungs downward, creating a vacuum which is subsequently filled by the air you breathe. This draws the air deeper into the lungs and creates a better, more efficient gas exchange with each breath. To check you’re doing this, whilst sitting upright or standing, place one hand on your chest, and one on your stomach. As you breathe in, the hand on your stomach should move, not the one on your chest. You can begin to add a little resistance with the hand on your stomach (I find this works well whilst walking) to challenge and strengthen the muscle.

For further reading, I would highly recommend investigating The Oxygen Advantage and also, for more applicable methods for warm-ups, training and cool downs, Power Speed Endurance.

Whilst the information above is based on the research and experience of the author, it does not constitute or override medical advice. Such advice should be sought before undertaking any form of breath training or restriction, and should certainly not be performed by at risk persons.


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