We do it all the time — without really giving it a second thought. But how you breathe can have a big effect on your health
Breathing is such a natural thing that we rarely even think about it. We take roughly 17,000 breaths every single day. But did you know that each one could be affecting your health?
Breath expert and author of Breathe Well, Aimee Hartley (thebreathingroom.co.uk), says: ‘There are many factors that affect our breathing. External factors such as air pollution and posture can mean we don’t breathe as deeply as we should, while internal factors including stress, anxiety and repressed anger cause us to tense our diaphragms and stop us from breathing fully.’
Here’s how learning to breathe properly can improve your health.
Breath and mood
You might not realise it, but each feeling has its own unique breath pattern.
‘If we’re feeling fearful and scared, our breath will be short, shallow and sometimes with prolonged breath-holding,’ explains Aimee. ‘If we’re happy and joyful, our breath will appear deep and full.’
But how can that help us change our mood?
‘The amazing thing about the respiratory system is that it’s both subconscious and conscious,’ Aimee says. ‘If we consciously slow down our breath rate and learn to breathe well into the diaphragm, we change the physiology of the body, and immediately start to feel better and happier.’
Your breath can also be used to reduce stress.
‘It’s been widely proven that if we extend our exhalation for longer than our inhalation, we trigger the parasympathetic nervous system, which allows us to enter our “rest and digest” state, making us feel calm,’ explains Aimee.
‘We also need to make sure we always breathe through our nose. This can bring all sorts of benefits including an improved immune system — as the production of nitric oxide in the nose helps to sterilise the air we breathe — and lowering blood pressure.’
If you struggle to sleep, making time for a short breathing routine before bed could help.
‘A short yoga routine with a focus on the breath, or simply enjoying breathing exercises while lying in bed, can help draw the mind to the present moment and allow worries and anxieties to fade away,’ says Aimee. ‘Slowing the breath down before bed will also trigger the calming side of the nervous system.’
It’s good to notice whether your body is holding on to unnecessary tension, too.
‘Sometimes we can be in the most comfortable bed, but our hands are in fists, toes are scrunched, our jaw clenched and our brow furrowed,’ says Aimee. ‘Breathwork can relieve this tension.’
Here’s how to do a full, healthy breath…
Inhale through the nose, so the diaphragm descends, and the belly expands.
During the inhalation be aware of the pelvic diaphragm descending in unison with the respiratory diaphragm. The lower torso should also expand along with the ribcage.
The upper chest and upper back should expand slightly nearing the peak of the inhalation.
On exhaling, the air should exit via the nose, and the belly, upper chest and lungs return to their resting positions.
The rhythm of the breath should be flowing with no holding on. The inhalation should feel expansive, energising and effortless. The exhale should be silent and smooth.
Breathing is so natural, yet we get it wrong so often. Try these ways to improve your breathing.
First, check your breath We often breathe through our mouths without realising.
‘By doing a few deliberate nasal breaths we can retrain the brain,’ says Aimee.
Hold your breath ‘Breath-holding without your awareness can have a detrimental effect on physical health — but consciously holding your breath can actually widen the blood vessels and reduce blood pressure,’ Aimee explains.
Take a deep breath and hold it for a few seconds before slowly releasing it.
Breathe into your diaphragm Pay attention to your stomach and ribs — they should move outwards as you breathe.
Try this Contract all the muscles of the face, arms, body and legs on your inhale, then release and relax everything on your exhale. Repeat five to 10 times and then do a few deep breaths right into your belly.
Edited by Clare Swatman