Breathing: The Most Important Exercise You Do All DayDecember 15, 2016
Not everyone loves to exercise. Muscles burn, you get hot, sweaty, and out of breath.
I understand why it doesn’t sound like the most enjoyable way to spend your free time.
Regardless of how much we might try to avoid exercise, there are a group of muscles that we use nearly 29,000 times a day: our breathing muscles. While we often forget about our breathing pattern since we do it so often, something as simple as breathing has been shown to have an effect on one of health’s biggest enemies: stress!
1. Everything About Stress
Whether it’s a deadline at work, a big exam, or unexpected traffic, stress is an unavoidable part of life. Stress can be a good thing when it activates our “fight or flight” response during emergency situations, however, if stress is continuously activating these hormones over time it can have negative consequences.
Research suggests excess stress leaves individuals more susceptible to infections, allergic diseases, asthma, high blood pressure, inflammatory diseases, anxiety, and depression.
It has even been suggested that “up to 75% of all visits to physicians’ offices are stress-related” (1). It is critical to find healthy ways to relax.
Relaxation is important. However, our favorite ways to relax can vary greatly from person to person. Many of us use TV as a way to unwind and let our minds wander from our everyday problems.
This is not enough to combat the ill effects of stress on the body; we must also use our own body’s relaxation response
2. Our Body's Response
Just like our body has a “fight or flight” response to heighten our senses and arousal, we also have a “rest and digest” response to help our body relax and slow down.
There are many functions that occur automatically in your body (i.e. heartbeat, hormones, digestion). Of all these processes, breathing is the easiest to voluntarily control and can be used to alter this system.
A 2005 review of multiple studies by Richard Brown and Patricia Gerbarg found that several yoga breathing techniques “can alleviate anxiety, depression, everyday stress, post-traumatic stress, and other stress-related illnesses.”(2)
3. Breathing Techniques
Deep breathing is a fundamental piece to much relaxation and breathing techniques and a great way to kick start your bodies’ relaxation response. All you need are a couple minutes and a place to sit.
There are many ways to activate your relaxation response, and what works best for you may differ from what works best for your spouse or friends.
Deep breathing focuses on long breaths taken through the abdomen rather than the upper chest.
- Sit or lie comfortably with your back straight
- Place one hand on upper chest and one over stomach
- Inhale slowly through nose for 5 seconds, focus on breathing through lower hand while keeping upper hand from moving
- Exhale slowly through mouth for 5 seconds
This can be combined with music, meditation, aromatherapy, or any other relaxation technique you can think of.
Activation of the relaxation response causes a decrease in heart rate and blood pressure among many changes. Muscles begin to relax and tensions in our bodies reduce.
There are so many benefits from such a simple exercise.
Tips to Incorporate Deep Breathing into Your Life:
- If you enjoy exercise, concentrate on your breathing during your workout
- Set a schedule for once or twice a day to dedicate a few minutes to active breathing
- It’s okay to skip a few days or weeks, don’t get discouraged
- Marshall G. The Adverse effects of Phsychological Stress on Immunoregulatory Balance: Applications to Human Inflammatory Diseases. Immunological Allergy Clinic of Northern America. 2011 Feb;31(1):133-140
- Brown RP and Gerbarg PL: Sudarshan Kriya yogic breathing in the treatment of stress, anxiety, and depression: Part I-neurophysiologic model. J Alternative and Complementary Med. 11(1):189-201, 2005.