The benefits and importance of correct breathing in running have been discussed at length. What you may not know or overlook is the importance of breathing at any time of the day. The benefits that a few simple breathing exercises that take a few minutes can give you are undeniable and powerful. Here is what breathing serves, what it causes and finally a very simple exercise.
Why do we breathe?
The simplest answer is “Try not to do it.” In fact, breathing is one of the most natural automatic reflexes, since we learn to do it as soon as we are born, without anyone explaining it to us. At a biological level, however, the reason why we breathe is that we must bring oxygen to the body with inspiration and consequently expel the CO2 that is formed as a waste product of cellular processes. In other words, the two moments of breathing serve to introduce fuel that activates the cell engine and to emit their exhaust gases. I don’t know if Carl Zimmer would be very happy with this explanation but he will forgive me.
Breathing normally occurs automatically: it is the brain itself – through sensors – that controls the level of oxygen and CO2 in the blood and regulates how quickly or slowly to breathe.
When we perceive danger or anxiety (motivated or not), the brain increases the breathing rate and heart rate. This is one of the oldest reflexes, inherited from our ancestors who walked with a club and dressed in fur: in case of physical danger – which at that time was much more frequent than today – the whole body was arranged in an emergency configuration, ready to run away or fight.
But if you think about it, breathing is the only physical process that we can control. You can’t decide to slow down your heartbeat. You can’t order your stomach to stop digesting or to do it (sometimes it would be very useful, especially after an Easter lunch). However, you can decide how to breathe and, consequently, you can try to slow down your heartbeat and, according to some studies, also your blood pressure.
The problem is that we don’t know how to do it very well, because we have forgotten how to breathe.
The benefits of breathing
You understand what physical benefits a good breathing can give you. But it’s not over yet: there are also mental and more general well-being.
– Increases concentration
– Reduces or keeps anxiety under control
– Decreases the level of stress
We no longer know how to breathe or rather: we do it in a way that is good when and if we have to introduce large amounts of oxygen in a short time, that is when we are in danger. But today when are we really in danger?
This type of breathing is called “shoulder breathing”: it is broken, frequent, rapid. It fills only the upper part of the lungs and is the exact opposite of the correct “belly” or diaphragm filling. Do you know who breathes well with the belly? Two kinds of humans: newborn babies (look at their swelling bellies, aren’t they irresistible?) and opera singers or actors in general, or at least the good ones. Well, there are also yogis or those who meditate and also many athletes, okay. What I mean is that he who knows how to do it breathes well, and to do it well you have to use your belly, because by doing so you fill all your lungs with air and not just their upper part.
A very simple exercise
The normal adult breathes 12 to 16 times per minute. Focusing on this exercise that lasts ONE MINUTE (sorry for the uppercase, but it’s to say that it really takes you very little time) you can get down to 6 breaths per minute. Does this mean that you will breathe less? No: it just means that you will breathe better.
Here it is:
– Inhale counting up to three filling the lungs from the bottom up, then expanding the belly, then continuing to fill them up to raise the shoulders a bit (this movement indicates the end of the inhalation)
– Count up to two holding your breath
– Release emptying the lungs starting from the bottom, that is, using the diaphragm (or the belly, if you prefer) to push the air outwards from the bottom to the top, until complete expulsion.
Each cycle lasts 3+2+3+2, divided as follows: 3 seconds inhalation, 2 seconds pause, 3 seconds exhalation, 2 seconds pause, repeat. That is, it means that in one minute you will have completed 6 cycles of breathing instead of 12 or 16. Do you feel the difference?
Does doing this exercise cause you too much stress? Really? We are talking about a few minutes a day. You can do it anywhere, even on the subway or in the office, without anyone noticing (not even if it were something to be ashamed of). You can even do it in line at the checkout, although it is better to do it sitting or lying down.
If you think that you are not in your element with meditation or yoga, look at it this way: you are not doing anything strange, you are doing a simple breathing exercise. A few minutes. Well-being guaranteed. Belly, shoulders, pause. Belly, shoulders, pause. Repeat. It’s already better, isn’t it?
(Photo by Darius Bashar on Unsplash)