Marks Daily Apple
Serving up health and fitness insights (daily, of course) with a side of irreverence.
16 Dec

Why You Should Practice Deep Breathing (and How to Do It)

Stressed, anyone? Whether it’s the holidays, the weather, or just the same old tensions, you know that stress takes its toll on your well-being. Sure, you’d love to motivate yourself to take up a meditation practice, yoga class or some other endeavor that promises an effective retreat from the weight of daily pressures. (A vacation from your problems, anyone?) How about taking a deep breath? No, seriously. Experts are increasingly lining up to recommend simple breathing exercises for both immediate stress relief benefits – as well as deep, lasting physiological advantages.

Last week, NPR highlighted the power of breathing in an interview with several researchers, including Dr. Mladen Golubic of the Cleveland Clinic’s Center for Integrative Medicine. Listen to the audio clip below or read the transcript here.

Just Breathe: Body Has A Built-In Stress Reliever

According to Golubic, breathing exercises create positive changes that help improve conditions as serious as asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and heart failure (PDF). Breathing exercises improve lung function by “stretching” airway tissue and inducing the release of a “protective chemical” known to maintain airway integrity. As Esther Sternberg of the National Institute of Mental Health suggests in the NPR interview, deep breathing also shifts the body out of sympathetic nervous system control and into parasympathetic mode, a healthier, calmer state in terms of general well-being and biochemical balance. This curbing of stress hormones (like cortisol), in turn, preserves the body’s immune function and keeps blood pressure and heart rate in check.

Finally, deep breathing for relaxation can also influence gene expression related to inflammation, oxidative stress, and cellular metabolism. Yes, I’ve covered this one before, but here’s a look back for those of you who have joined us recently. The longer you practice deep breathing, the more pronounced the benefits for any particular condition and for gene activity.

So, this all sounds good and fine, you say. How can I make it work for me? What do you actually do? Although the breathing exercises experts describe closely parallel the breath work in traditional yoga practice, you don’t need to take up yoga to learn the techniques. It’s really about increasing your oxygen intake and – as author and researcher Dr. Herbert Benson suggests – inducing the body’s relaxation response.

Here’s how to do it:

  1. Simply get comfortable in any position and put your hands on your chest and stomach.
  2. To maximize oxygen intake, it’s important to learn to breathe from your abdomen (“belly breathing”) rather than your chest. Focus on your breath until you feel your stomach rise and fall more dramatically than your chest with each inhalation and exhalation.
  3. Breathe in through your nose, hold the breath for a few seconds and then exhale through your mouth. The time it takes to exhale should be about twice what it is to inhale. (Many suggest a 4:7:8 pattern – 4 to inhale, 7 to hold, and 8 to exhale.) Let go of other thoughts while you breathe.
  4. Do 4-8 breath cycles 1-3 times every day.

If you’re having trouble focusing on just your breath, consider incorporating a simple repetitive movement or phrase. In an Italian study, researchers asked two groups of participants to repeat yoga mantras or part of the rosary (the Ave Maria, in case you’re curious) six times a minute to correspond with natural circulatory fluctuations in the human system. The rhythmic recitation allowed both sets of participants to synchronize their cardiovascular patterns and increase their oxygen intake. Both groups reported a greater sense of well-being and displayed favorable physiological changes (greater Baroreflex sensitivity and less variable heart rate).

There’s even a device on the market called RESPeRATE that measures the frequency of breathing and chimes to encourage the user to breathe deeper and less often. It’s marketed specifically as a means to lower blood pressure. The research supports the product, but it’s the rhythmic concept (easily replicable with a watch second hand or metronome) rather than the $300 device itself.

The logic of the Primal Blueprint has always embraced the simplicity of living well. A healthy lifestyle needn’t feel like a burden, punishment, or deprivation. It’s about the succession of small steps and simple acts. The ease of basic breathing exercises reflects the same logic: small efforts go a long way when practiced regularly.

If you don’t already practice deep breathing, it’s one of the most straightforward, undemanding goals you can set for yourself. Sure, it could be a painless New Year’s resolution, but why wait to start something that could help get you through the holiday a little less stressed, a little bit healthier. There’s no better deal out there.

I’d love to hear your feedback. Do you do deep breathing exercises? How and where do you do them? What have you noticed since you started? Are you interested in starting a routine? Share your thoughts and questions, and thanks for reading.

You want comments? We got comments:

Imagine you’re George Clooney. Take a moment to admire your grooming and wit. Okay, now imagine someone walks up to you and asks, “What’s your name?” You say, “I’m George Clooney.” Or maybe you say, “I’m the Clooninator!” You don’t say “I’m George of George Clooney Sells Movies Blog” and you certainly don’t say, “I’m Clooney Weight Loss Plan”. So while spam is technically meat, it ain’t anywhere near Primal. Please nickname yourself something your friends would call you.

  1. I practice the 4:7:8 method each night before bed, about 10 cycles, it really helps me relax, clear my thoughts and fall asleep quickly. I learned this method many years ago watching Dr. Weil on a middle of the night infomercial (at the time was having major issues falling and staying asleep)…priceless information! I rarely (if ever) have sleeping issues anymore!!!!

    andrea wrote on December 18th, 2010
    • I love Dr Weil. If he’d just give up grains he’d be so much less of a fat slob, but he does have some great tips!

      Mile High Pete wrote on December 19th, 2010
  2. I do some meditative practices. Breathe in through your nose. Back straight. Fill your belly and push the belly out and down with air. Tongue should be at the roof of the mouth just behind the front teeth. Play with the energy!

    Drey wrote on December 19th, 2010
  3. Hi, check out cohérence cardiaque. Consists of breathing in and out in 9 seconds for 5 minutes. 3 Times a day. For better immune system, stabilizing stress levels , etc. Don’t know its english version, but should be something like “Heart Coherence” :) Breathing out should be longer and you can insert pauses( hold your breath)

    Mustafa wrote on December 20th, 2010
  4. Argh… In the comments already people have mentioned Buteyko shallow breathing and Esther Gokhale’s recommendation of chest breathing. It all makes so much sense, yet it all appears to conflict.

    For instance one Buteyko website stated diaphragmatic breathing stimulated the lymph nodes in the lower abdomen, but Gokhale felt that breathing through the stomach would squash the organs or something. At least between those two I would pick the Buteyko explanation.

    Jonesy Jones wrote on December 20th, 2010
  5. You mention in the first graph the information that was available on NPR. You may or may not know it but NPR is currently fighting for it’s life – please check out this link and get involved:

    Ozzy wrote on December 22nd, 2010
  6. Does our stomach need to rise when we breath in and go down when we breath out? Do I have it backwards?

    christin wrote on December 29th, 2010
  7. Normal abdominal breathing: The stomach expands on inhale as the lungs fill from the bottom up; on the slightly longer exhale the abdomen gently contracts.

    There is reverse breathing, which we all do naturally when lifting or moving something heavy: the stomach contracts on the inhale and expands on exhale. This is used in qigong for martial sets and in Chinese martial arts in general.

    Bob Ellal wrote on December 30th, 2010
  8. I’m just stil confussed! Sorry! Can someone post a video of what this looks like? I’ve had issues with breathing my whole life. I just want to “see” once and for all what correct breathing looks like.
    To relax, I’ve been laying on the ground with a rock on my belly and lifting the rock up when I breath in and letting it fall while I breath out.
    I swear this is what 2 Naturpathic Dr and one theripist told me to do.

    christin wrote on December 30th, 2010
  9. I love this article. I think deep breathing is very significant to controlling stress and even successful relationships. I think a lot of us associate deep breathing with meditation or hours of yoga. I believe that 30 seconds to a minute of deep breathing a couple times a day has great benefits.

    Michael wrote on March 8th, 2011
  10. There is now a Mac app in the appstore called “Pranayama” that you use to set up a custom breathing program. Works pretty nifty so far.

    Marty wrote on March 24th, 2012
  11. Thanks a lot for sharing this knowledge . I am a chest breather . Very recently i realized that the way i breather is not right.

    Once in a blue moon i get to take a deep breathe and it is really amazing .So i have decided to practice it , but still i have just started.

    mail me few tips as i am a beginner.

    When we are babies we do abdominal breathing , the now why do we breathe through the chest , who taught us that ??

    Once again thanks a lot & God bless you.


    Rose wrote on April 12th, 2012
  12. Regarding deep breathing… Try taking a breath, holding it for a second or two, and then taking another breath without letting out the first breath. (Breathe, breathe again, then exhale.) You will feel relaxation and stress release flowing through your entire body after you exhale.

    Shary wrote on June 5th, 2012
  13. Breathing indeed helps but sometimes I was very stressed during public speakings that I was forgetting for a moment what I was about to say. It’s all in our head. I’ve noticed that if we visualize a LOT the upcoming event, with it’s all details and things that we fear then it’s easier when it comes as we’re already a bit prepared for facing those things.

    Craig Allen wrote on April 19th, 2013
  14. Doctor says I cannot take deep breaths before measuring blood pressure. I have high bp and the breathing lowers it to a near normal state….Doc says that it is cheating! Yes or no?

    Richard Dias wrote on June 25th, 2015

Leave a Reply

If you'd like to add an avatar to all of your comments click here!

© 2016 Mark's Daily Apple

Subscribe to the Newsletter and Get a Free Copy
of Mark Sisson's Fitness eBook and more!