The mechanical process of breathing
Wikipedia defines breathing as a simple exchange of gases. The lungs allow air in and out and it is a mechanical process necessary to allow our biological functions to operate. Oxygen in and Carbon Dioxide out - it is that simple? No!
At a very basic level, good breathing means that the mechanical process is as efficient as it can be. If we use the diaphragm properly when we breathe, our stomach will distend when we inhale. This makes sure that the lower lobes of the lungs get involved in the process which improves the efficiency of the gas transfer. The lower lobes also have extra receptors involved in our reactions to stress. At The Sweat Coach we aware of the importance of good breathing. Aerobic exercise makes our bodies inhale and exhale more than when we are at rest and this will allow more carbon dioxide out and more fresh oxygen in. A good workout increases the gas exchange and makes us feel better, more relaxed, and happy as a result.
Using the diaphragm ('belly breathing') reduces stress levels. It also regulates a host of body functions and lowers blood pressure. Learning to breathe this way can help you deal with anxiety and depression. It can also deal with a range of problems from irritable bowel syndrome to insomnia.
Menshealth.com tells a story of a powerlifter who went from 8 repetitions to 23 at the same weight once he had been coached in diaphragm breathing. He also found new energy outside the gym.
Scientists have even studied the best position to recover from intense exercise. It appears that our school coaches were wrong to tell us to stand tall and to show the opposition that we were not tired. In fact, crouching down helps the diaphragm expel carbon dioxide faster and allows the heart to slow down faster. In a workout, faster recovery means that you can go again with more intensity when the next set of repetitions start.
Breathing and meditation
It is at this point that breathing starts to become more than a mechanical process. Taking a breath differs from many auto-regulated functions in that we can control it ourselves as well. We can forget about it for long periods of time and our breath comes in and out without any thought or effort. However, if we start to think about the breath as part of meditation, for example, we can control it for our own ends. For thousands of years, man has been finding ways to improve breathing techniques. Searching for improved health and a better response to the external environment. They even teach breathing techniques to special forces personnel to help them deal with stress.
By 'coming back to the breath' in meditation, we can slow things down, gather our thoughts and get control of our emotions. Pranayama is the control of breath (to the point of cessation of breath) between, and after, yoga positions (asanas).
The Vagus, or Vagal, nerve
The vagus nerve is the longest nerve in the body. It connects the brain to the digestive system and has an impact on all sorts of medical conditions as well as physical and mental wellbeing. Research suggests that the health of the vagus nerve can be improved by slow, long breaths. This is particularly true if the exhale is longer than the inhale and if the diaphragm is fully involved in the breath.
A healthy vagus nerve means reduced stroke risk and better sugar regulation. It will reduce blood pressure, improve digestion and heart-health as well. The 4-7-8 breath is good for vagal tone (the strength of your vagal response). Breathe in through the nose for four seconds, hold for seven seconds and then exhale slowly through the mouth for eight seconds. Repeat as often as you like but try for at least four repetitions at each sitting. This is not a simple meditation exercise. The vagal tone or strength is measured by the difference in your heart beat when breathing in compared to the rate when breathing out. The 4-7-8 breath helps to strengthen the vagus nerve's ability to help the various organs that it communicates with to deal with stress.
Alternative breathing practices
There are lots of exercises to improve your breathing or use your breathing to get to sleep more quickly or control stress better. Some of these are very ancient like Nadi Shodhan. This is thousands of years old and involves alternately breathing in through one nostril and out through the other. Repeated many times daily, this method reduces blood pressure and lowers heart rate.
Some practitioners swear by the box breath system - inhale for four seconds, hold for four. Then exhale for four seconds and then hold for four. Repeat four times whenever you can.
Conclusion - good breathing needs practice
At so many levels, an understanding of the importance of good breathing is vital to good health - physical and mental. If fitness and health is important to you then you need to find time to work on your breathing skills too. Think about a programme of exercises to improve your overall health and energy through breathing. Add in practice to ensure that you are using your diaphragm and make sure that you recover from a workout in the right position for maximum efficiency.
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