Breathing ExercisesAugust 24, 2009 Written by JP [Font too small?]
Many of the health benefits attributed to natural therapies are actually brought about by re-establishing practices that ought to come naturally to the body and mind. There is nothing more basic and essential than breathing. But there’s a difference between breathing to live and breathing with the goal of improving and/or maintaining good health. The difference between these practices generally has to do with two factors: the conscious act of breathing properly and how deeply air is inhaled and exhaled via the diaphragm and lungs.
Improving the way we breathe can dramatically impact both physical and psychological well being. It does require some effort, but like most other exercises, regular practice will result in functional gains in the daily respiratory process and, occasionally, profound benefits for a wide range of health conditions.
Recent surveys by Harvard University and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services point out that nearly 17% of the US population engage in regular “mind-body therapies”. Part of the reason is that a high percentage of people perceive benefits (70% – 90%) from these endeavors. It’s interesting to note that of all the mind-body practitioners, only about 13% choose deep breathing exercises as a mode of healing. (1,2)
One area in which breathing exercises may be particularly useful is in the management of high blood pressure. A study published in July 2009 tested the effects of fast vs. slow breathing techniques in a group of 60 hypertensive men and women. Over the course of 3 months, half of the group practiced the fast breathing routine and the remainder took the slow route. Both techniques improved blood pressure readings. But it was the slower breathing group that demonstrated greater health strides. It appears that these benefits can also present themselves in the short term. Recent trials have determined that even one session of slow breathing exercises can result in a significant decrease in diastolic and systolic blood pressure, heart rate and respiratory rate. Device assisted breathing exercises and yoga based breathing techniques (bhastrika pranayama) also appear to be an effective means of provoking hypotensive activity. (3,4,5,6,7)
Climacteric symptoms refer to the troublesome side effects of menopause. Breathing exercises may be a helpful adjunct to both conventional and holistic therapies intended to ease the changes that occur during this time of life. A recent summary from the University of Virginia cited “paced respiration” as a potentially viable means of helping to control hot flashes and other menopausal symptoms. Several studies from the past few years support that assertion. (8)
- In October 2008, an 8 week trial involving 120 middle-aged women found that a yoga breathing technique (pranayama) “decreases climacteric symptoms, perceived stress, and neuroticism in perimenopausal women better than physical exercise”. (9)
- Symptomatic improvement in cognitive functioning such as attention, concentration, “mental balance” and various memory indexes were noted in a July 2008 experiment. Reductions in hot flashes and night sweats were also recorded. (10)
- A 12 week study that involved a 15 minute daily practice of yogic breathing helped to improve “total menopausual symptoms, hot-flash daily interference and sleep efficiency, disturbances, and quality”. (11)
The utility of such mind-body practices may have an application beyond that of just personal health. Scholastic and workplace performance can also benefit from the changes that breathing exercises can bring about. Recent studies indicate that breathing therapy can: a) be an effective tool to combat “burnout” for teachers; b) help lower the cardiovascular risks induced by high stress jobs; and c) improve attention and mental performance in students and older adults. (12,13,14)
There are many different respiratory techniques used to address individual concerns and needs. The following practice is quite general in nature. But what’s important is hat it can quickly improve your mental outlook and increase the level of oxygen that makes its way into your system. If you’re interested in learning about more advanced techniques, please visit the following links. (15,16,17)
Step 1: Lie down in a quiet location with a pillow placed under your knees. Choose an environment with as much “fresh air” as possible.
Step 2: Place one hand on the lower portion of your stomach and the other hand on your chest.
Step 3: Inhale deeply through your nose and aim to fill your stomach with air. Try doing a slow count to 4 as you breathe in. Note: The goal is to make the hand on your abdomen rise above the level of the other hand that’s on your chest.
Step 4: Hold your breath for a count of 7. This can be a quick count, if necessary.
Step 5: Exhale the air slowly and thoroughly from your mouth. Ideally, you should strive to exhale to a count of 8 – or twice the amount of time you took to inhale.
This exercise can be performed as often as needed. Some experts recommend starting off with a limited number of therapeutic breaths (4 cycles) per session. Then, as your lung capacity improves, you can increase the number of repetitions.
A common concern is that breathing exercises may not be appropriate for individuals with pre-existing respiratory disorders. Obviously such exercises should be evaluated on a case by case basis. But it should be noted that many scientific trials suggest that breathing exercises have a positive effect on common illnesses such as asthma and COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease). (18,19,20,21,22,23,24,25)
The far reaching benefits of deep breathing exercises should not underestimated. Such a simple practice has been documented as helping a wide range of conditions, such as chronic fatigue syndrome, depression, diabetes, headaches, indigestion and, even, panic disorder. What I particularly like about this form of therapy is that it may appeal to individuals who normally might not be open to “alternative medicine”. Some people simply will not consider acupuncture, meditation or yoga as a means to a wellness end. But breathing is something that does not carry the same “holistic baggage”. Breathing exercises are easy to perform, they’re free and they address a most fundamental need. So, let’s the most of each breath we take. (26,27,28,29,30,31,32)
Note: Please check out the “Comments & Updates” section of this blog – at the bottom of the page. You can find the latest research about this topic there!
Tags: asthma, COPD, Exercise
Posted in Alternative Therapies, Heart Health, Mental Health