Breathing is something we constantly do without thinking about. Breathing exercises are commonly performed by many to ease anxiety and stress and improve sleep and relaxation. However, the way we breathe, including the number of breaths we take each minute, how we breathe, the depth of breathing and whether we breathe through our nose or mouth can all have a significant effect on our physical and mental health. In this post I’ve detailed the the problem with breathing incorrectly, 4 principles to improve breathing and breathe correctly and the 2 exercises I perform each day which are most beneficial for breath retraining to learn how to breathe properly to improve our physical and mental health.
Disclaimer: This breathing retraining post is intended for informational purposes only. I’m not a qualified practitioner and I’m not encouraging anyone else to these exercises. Please consult a qualified practitioner before making any changes to your current lifestyle and treatment plan. This post contains affiliate links, meaning at no additional cost to you I will earn commission if you click on a link and make a purchase. See my full disclaimer here.
Breathing is something we do automatically without thinking about it. However, it is vital for both physical and mental health. When we inhale, we breathe in oxygen from the outside air, which is essential for every cell in our body to function. When we breathe out, carbon dioxide, toxins and other waste products are removed from the body – it is one of 6 pathways our body uses to naturally remove toxins and waste products from our body.
The way we breathe affects every part of our body:-
- Immune function
- Heart rate
- Blood pressure
- Energy levels
the problem with bad breathing habits
During each breath, we inhale oxygen and exhale carbon dioxide. However, to function optimally, a certain amount of carbon dioxide is needed to release and transfer oxygen to every cell in the body (1).
Bad breathing habits and over breathing in the following ways causes too much carbon dioxide to be exhaled:-
- Taking too larger breaths,
- Breathing too rapidly,
- Chest breathing,
- Breathing through your mouth (1).
This narrows blood vessels, lowering the amount of oxygen delivered throughout the body by up to 50%. It also reduces vagus nerve activation. The vagus nerve is the longest nerve in the body, running from the brain through all our major organs. When activated it stimulates our parasympathetic rest and digest system, which calms our whole body and improves both physical and mental health (2). Incorrect breathing mechanics can, therefore, cause a range of symptoms, including:-
- Poor concentration,
- Headaches & migraines,
- Increased heart rates,
- Increased blood pressure (1).
correct breathing technique
There are 4 principles we should follow to learn how to breathe correctly to stimulate the vagus nerve and cause carbon dioxide levels to remain optimal and blood vessels to stay wider to maximise the amount of oxygen supplied (1).
breath retraining tip 1 – breathe slowly, ideally 6 breaths per minute
Taking 6 breaths per minute has been shown to be optimal for maximising the amount of oxygen taken in and transported around the body (3).
breath retraining Tip 2 – Breathe in and out through the nose
We’re commonly told to breathe in through our nose and out through our mouth. However, breathing in and out through the nose keeps the air in our lungs for longer, increasing the amount of oxygen delivered round the body by up to 20%, which increases energy levels and boosts concentration, memory and alertness (4).
breath retraining tip 3 – breathe via the belly not the chest
The diaphragm – a dome shaped muscle that sits at the bottom of the lungs – is the muscle we use to breathe. When we breathe in the diaphragm flattens and moves down, increasing the space available for the lungs to fill with air. When we breathe out, the diaphragm moves up and returns to the dome shape, helping remove toxins and waste products from the lungs (5).
Belly breathing, aka diaphragmatic breathing, increases the amount the diaphragm moves down with each breath. This maximises the amount of air and oxygen taken in, helping to slow your breathing rate to the required 6 breaths per minute. In contrast, chest breathing causes us to take shallower breaths, reducing the amount of air we take in, which, consequently, causes an increase in the number of breaths we take each minute (6).
To ensure you’re breathing via your belly and not the chest:-
- Lay down or sit up straight in a comfortable position,
- Place your left hand on the centre of your chest,
- Place your right hand on the centre of your stomach,
- When you breathe in, your stomach should expand and push out against your right hand, while your left hand on your chest should remain still.
- When you breathe out, your stomach should deflate and move back in, while your left hand again remains still on your chest.
breath retraining tip 4 – Make the exhale double the length of the inhale
Inhaling stimulates our stress response and suppresses the vagus nerve, which:-
- Increases heart and breathing rates,
- Impairs sleep,
- Impairs digestion and,
- Increases anxiety.
In contrast, exhaling increases vagus nerve activation and stimulates our parasympathetic rest and digest system, which:-
- Calms our whole body,
- Reduces heart rates,
- Improves sleep,
- Optimises digestion,
- Provides anxiety and stress relief and,
- Increases relaxation.
Therefore, to ensure we’re in the parasympathetic state, it’s recommended to make your exhale double the length of your inhale. For example, if aiming to take 6 breaths per minute, the best way to breathe is inhaling for around 3-4 seconds and exhaling for around 6-8 seconds (7).
what are the best breathing exercises
- Calming our nervous system,
- Improving sleep,
- Improving digestion,
- Reducing heart rates and blood pressure,
- Boosting our immune system,
- Reducing anxiety & stress.
With so many different breathing techniques available, it can be difficult to know what the optimal breathing methods to perform are. Below are the two I have found via research and my own experience most beneficial to learn how to breathe better and maximise the health benefits.
breath retraining exercise 1 – Alternate nostril breathing
Alternate nostril breathing produces the quickest increase in heart rate variability, which is an indicator of vagus nerve tone and parasympathetic nervous system activation. Therefore, this breathing exercise is best when you’re short of time or quickly need to calm anxiety and stress levels (13).
- Sit up straight in a comfortable position
- Close your right nostril fully with your right thumb
- Inhale through your left nostril and then close the left nostril with your finger.
- Release your thumb from your right nostril and exhale through your right nostril.
- Inhale through the right nostril and then close this nostril with your right thumb.
- Release your finger from your left nostril and exhale through your left nostril.
- Repeat the above cycle for 5 minutes, finishing by exhaling through your left nostril.
breath retraining exercise 2 – Buteyko breathing
Buteyko breathing exercises, like detailed in Patrick McKeown’s book “Close Your Mouth” (UK Link/US Link), correct our breathing mechanics in the long term and train us to breathe correctly, in and out through the nose at an optimal rate and volume, to maximise the amount of oxygen delivered round the body (1).
how to perform the buteyko reduced breathing exercise
Buteyko breathing benefits are achieved most commonly with the reduced breathing exercise. It takes 10-20 minutes to do so most suitable first thing in the morning, last thing at night to improve sleep or when you have a longer period of time spare.
- Sit up straight and begin breathing normally, paying attention to how much air you’re inhaling and exhaling.
- When you’re ready to start, with each inhale, take a shorter smaller breath in, reducing the amount of air taken in,
- Then take a slow relaxed breath out, allowing the body and diaphragm to naturally relax, reducing the amount of air exhaled,
- As you reduce and slow your breathing like this you should feel a slight need to take in more air that is noticeable but not uncomfortable.
- Continue the above exercise for 4 minutes, maintaining this slight need for air throughout.
- Rest and breathe normally for 1-2 minutes, then repeat the above exercise 1-3 more times.
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I hope these breathing tips are helpful. Do you perform breathwork exercises? What breathing methods do you find most beneficial? If so, I’d love to know. Drop me a comment below, or message me on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest or YouTube.