Breathing Exercises

August 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)

Diaphragmatic Breathing

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!

Be well!


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Posted in Alternative Therapies, Heart Health, Mental Health

8 Comments & Updates to “Breathing Exercises”

  1. Iggy Dalrymple Says:

    I use the long slow deep breathing and it has worked wonders on my BP. I checked today and it was 110/66…..of course I do all the other good stuff, exercise, losing weight, good diet, etc.

  2. sfauthor Says:

    Nice posting.

  3. JP Says:

    Thanks for sharing that, Iggy. My father also uses deep breathing as a tool to manage his BP. He sometimes looks at a beautiful picture of a secluded Fijian beach or the like while inhaling and exhaling. He says that lowers his BP further. 🙂

    Be well!


  4. JP Says:

    Thank you, sfauthor!

    Be well!


  5. JP Says:

    Updated 06/11/16:

    J Asthma. 2016 Jun 10:0.

    A modified breathing exercise program for asthma is easy to perform and effective.

    OBJECTIVES: Breathing exercises are used by some asthmatic patients, yet are often difficult to perform and time-consuming. This study evaluated a simple, modified breathing exercise program regarding ease to perform and effectiveness as an adjunctive therapy.

    METHODS: Subjects age 18 to 65 with a current diagnosis of persistent asthma were enrolled. A program that incorporated three different breathing exercises (yoga pranayama techniques, diaphragmatic breathing and pursed lip breathing) was taught to subjects. The program was designed to be completed in less than 10 minutes per day. Subjects completed the Asthma Control Test (ACT) and mini-Asthma Quality of Life Questionnaire (AQLQ) at baseline and at 1-month follow-up. They also completed a survey which asked them to rate the effectiveness and difficulty of the exercises, and whether they would recommend them in the future.

    RESULTS: A total of 74 subjects were enrolled in this study. The intervention improved breathing for 52.9% of the subjects, while 67.6% felt that their daily activity was improved and 66.1% noted that the exercises allowed decreased use of a rescue inhaler. Most subjects (80.9%) recommended breathing exercises as a complementary therapy for asthma and 79.4% of the subjects stated the exercises took less than 10 minutes per day total. Overall, ACT scores improved significantly (p = 0.002) with a statistically non-significant improvement in AQLQ scores.

    CONCLUSION: A simple program of breathing exercises was found to be effective and could be completed in less than 10 minutes per day. Furthermore, there was a statistically significant improvement in ACT scores post-exercise.

    Be well!


  6. JP Says:

    Updated 06/21/17:

    Front Psychol. 2017 Jun 6;8:874.

    The Effect of Diaphragmatic Breathing on Attention, Negative Affect and Stress in Healthy Adults.

    A growing number of empirical studies have revealed that diaphragmatic breathing may trigger body relaxation responses and benefit both physical and mental health. However, the specific benefits of diaphragmatic breathing on mental health remain largely unknown. The present study aimed to investigate the effect of diaphragmatic breathing on cognition, affect, and cortisol responses to stress. Forty participants were randomly assigned to either a breathing intervention group (BIG) or a control group (CG). The BIG received intensive training for 20 sessions, implemented over 8 weeks, employing a real-time feedback device, and an average respiratory rate of 4 breaths/min, while the CG did not receive this treatment. All participants completed pre- and post-tests of sustained attention and affect. Additionally, pre-test and post-test salivary cortisol concentrations were determined in both groups. The findings suggested that the BIG showed a significant decrease in negative affect after intervention, compared to baseline. In the diaphragmatic breathing condition, there was a significant interaction effect of group by time on sustained attention, whereby the BIG showed significantly increased sustained attention after training, compared to baseline. There was a significant interaction effect of group and time in the diaphragmatic breathing condition on cortisol levels, whereby the BIG had a significantly lower cortisol level after training, while the CG showed no significant change in cortisol levels. In conclusion, diaphragmatic breathing could improve sustained attention, affect, and cortisol levels. This study provided evidence demonstrating the effect of diaphragmatic breathing, a mind-body practice, on mental function, from a health psychology approach, which has important implications for health promotion in healthy individuals.

    Be well!


  7. JP Says:

    Updated 08/08/17:

    Complement Ther Clin Pract. 2017 Aug;28:116-121.

    Effects of a respiratory functional training program on pain and sleep quality in patients with fibromyalgia: A pilot study.

    OBJECTIVE: To evaluate the effect of 8-week respiratory functional training program on pain tolerance, sleep, and urinary antioxidant and cortisol levels in 18 patients with fibromyalgia.

    METHODS: Participants underwent a 12-week intervention: 4 weeks as control and 8 weeks of breathing exercises. Pain tolerance assay was done by using an algometer, whereas sleep quality was evaluated by actigraphy and by the Pittsburgh Sleep Quality Index. Cortisol and antioxidant levels were determined using commercial assay kits.

    RESULTS: Increases in the pain tolerance threshold were detected in the occiput point after one month of intervention as well as in the low cervical and second rib points after one and two months. Actigraphy revealed a decrease in sleep latency, whereas sleep questionnaire showed improvements in sleep quality, sleep duration and sleep efficiency. No changes in cortisol and antioxidant levels were detected.

    CONCLUSION: The 8-week breathing exercise intervention reduced pain and improved sleep quality.

    Be well!


  8. JP Says:

    Updated 04/14/18:

    J Altern Complement Med. 2018 Apr 13.

    Breathing Exercises Must Be a Real and Effective Intervention to Consider in Women with Fibromyalgia: A Pilot Randomized Controlled Trial.

    BACKGROUND/OBJECTIVE: Respiratory problems can aggravate pain located in the coincident areas with tender points in the upper half of the body in patients with fibromyalgia (FM) and easily become fatigued, thus can lead to a decrease in the functionality of daily activities. The purpose of this study was to examine the effects of a breathing exercises program on pain thresholds tolerance on tender points and FM impact on daily life.

    METHODS/DESIGN: Thirty-five women with FM (age 34-67 years) were randomly assigned to an exercise group (n = 18), performing breathing exercises (30 min/session, 7 times/week; for 12 weeks), or to a control group (n = 17). Pain thresholds tolerance on tender points were measured by the physician using digital pressure algometer and FM impact on daily life was evaluated with the Portuguese version of the Fibromyalgia Impact Questionnaire (FIQ).

    RESULTS: After 12 weeks of breathing exercises significant improvements were observed in the mean values of the treatment effects on pain thresholds tolerance on tender points and in the functional capacity to perform daily life, pain, and fatigue in favor of the exercise group. Gains in second rib, occiput, and supraspinatus pairs of the tender points predict improvements in the functional capacity, pain, and fatigue.

    CONCLUSION: Our study demonstrated that breathing exercises produced relevant benefits on pain thresholds tolerance on tender points located in the upper half of the body, some of which predicted improvements in the impact of FM in the functional capacity to perform daily life, pain, and fatigue. These results provide further support of an idea that breathing exercises are a real and effective intervention to consider in women with FM.

    Be well!


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