Breathing for Your Health
Most of us breathe between eight and 16 times a minute, which is a perfectly healthy pace. But slow breathing exercises, even a few times a week, can bring major health and psychological benefits. Six breaths a minute may be the best rate for relaxation, says Frederick Muench, Ph.D., an assistant professor of psychology at Columbia University Medical Center. That's one inhale and exhale about every 10 seconds, which puts you in an ideal state: calm but still alert. Here's how to get there:
Breathe deeply and slowly for 15 to 20 minutes.
You should aim for six breaths a minute, but any pace that's slower than your usual breathing will yield benefits, Muench says. Though it helps if you're in a quiet place without distractions, you can do this when you're sitting on a plane, in the middle of a crazy workday, or while walking the dog. Again, the first few times you try this exercise, consider lying on the floor, making sure that your belly is free to rise and fall without being cramped by clothing or poor posture.
Repeat this exercise three or more times a week.
The more often you set aside 15 to 20 minutes to breathe slowly and deeply, the more you'll benefit, and the easier the practice will become.
Think you don't have time? Even a minute or two of slower, deeper breathing can relieve stress, and you can do it anywhere. Especially if you have a high-pressure, anxiety-filled event coming up (a presentation at work, a loaded conversation with your daughter, or even a physically challenging task), start focusing on your breathing before it happens — don't wait for the stress-inducing situation to arrive.
The Deeper Benefits of Breathing
Turns out this concentration on slower, more effective breathing is the crucial common denominator in a wide variety of groundbreaking studies on how people achieve physical, mental, even spiritual well-being. Here, more proven benefits.
Reduce anxiety: Deep breathing and meditation can help fight stress-related disorders like anxiety, depression, heart attacks, strokes, irritable bowel syndrome, infertility, and insomnia — to name just a few, says cardiologist Herbert Benson, M.D., Mind Body Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School. Multiple studies at major universities have documented the benefits of breathing and other relaxation techniques for problems ranging from adolescent angst to shell shock. Survivors of 9/11 and the 2004 tsunami in Asia, for instance, have been treated for anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder using breathing techniques.
Find focus: Both rosary prayers and yoga mantras were found to have "striking and powerful" positive effects on heart rhythms and blood pressure, because these practices slow breathing to about six times per minute, according to research published in the British Medical Journal. In fact, slow breathing techniques are used in "essentially every spiritual tradition to achieve deeper states of prayer, meditation, and contemplation," says Al Lee, co-author of the book Perfect Breathing.
Fight pain: When women with fibromyalgia breathed at half their normal rate, their stress and pain lifted, according to a 2010 study published in the journal Pain. And elderly people with chronic lower-back pain benefited from mindfulness meditation, which includes exercises that focus attention on breathing. The result, according to a 2008 study in the Journal of Pain: less discomfort and improved attention, sleep, well-being, and quality of life.
Prevent disease: Relaxation boosts genes that control inflammation, strengthen the immune system, and prevent diabetes, according to Benson's 2008 and 2013 studies published in the journal PLoS One.
Boost your workout: Mountain climbers have used deep breathing to prevent altitude sickness, which occurs when you can't get enough oxygen. Slowing the breath — and your heart rate — helps oxygen work more efficiently, saturating your cells like water seeping into a sponge. So go ahead — take a deep breath and let David Blaine know he's not the only one who appreciates the bliss deep breathing can bring.
5 Ways to Try Deep Breathing
Close your eyes, pinch your nose, pucker up. Explore your inhale/exhale with these fresh, surprising techniques.
- Count Your Exhales. This simple Japanese technique, called Susokukan — or Zen Breath Counting — focuses your energy on your breath, helping you concentrate and relax. If you get distracted and lose count, just start over from the number 1. Try this exercise for 10 continuous minutes.
- Purse Your Lips. Using your diaphragm, breathe in through your mouth, then pucker up, as if about to kiss, and expel the oxygen from your lungs through a pinhole opening in your lips, says Ed Viesturs, a mountaineer who has climbed Mt. Everest seven times. Viesturs used slow breathing techniques to preserve oxygen in the thin air. "This delays air's release, giving your body more time to absorb oxygen," he says. "When facing an obstacle — whether it's a mountain peak or a long set of stairs — start deep breathing before you reach it."
- Alternate Nostrils. In Nadi Shodhana, a yogic practice from India, you press your right thumb gently against your right nostril, then breathe in through your left nostril. Release the thumb, close your left nostril with your right ring finger, then breathe out through your right nostril. Repeat this process, inhaling on one side, switching your finger placement, and exhaling through the other side as you alternate nostrils. Try this 3 to 5 times for a calming effect.
- Bend and Breathe. Try this exercise from Nancy Zi, author of The Art of Breathing and a practitioner of qigong, a Chinese discipline that blends breathing techniques with philosophy, martial arts, and meditation. Bend forward from the waist as far as you comfortably can, place your hands on your lower back, and inhale. "Think of the circumference of your abdomen as a blossom opening and closing with each breath," says Zi."Let your tongue loosen toward your upper front teeth, to relax your respiratory muscles."
- Double Your Exhale Time. "Close your eyes and breathe in to a count of 2 through your nose, then exhale through your nose to a count of 4," says rehabilitation specialist Loren Fishman, M.D. "Do that 3 times, rest, then do it again." Sit or stand up straight for this experience, so that your ears, shoulders, hips, and ankles are aligned. After you've tried this relaxing technique a few times, stop counting and continue the practice for as long as you like.
This story originally appeared in the May/June 2014 issue of Dr. Oz The Good Life.