“Don’t take your breathing for granted. I think it’s the biggest piece of advice I can give.” That’s the message from GP Dr Punam Krishan, who we quizzed about breathing exercises after listening to her speak on a Fitbit-sponsored panel about stress.
A guided breathing feature is now common on most fitness trackers, with Fitbit being one of the first to debut it on the Fitbit Charge 2. While we’ve tended to overlook this feature, we’ll think twice after listening to Krishan.
You don’t need to invest in a device to breathe better, however. Krishan detailed the two basic techniques she prescribes to patients, and emphasised quite how fundamental effective breathing can be to our health. Ready? Deep breath, here we go.
How do breathing exercises differ from normal breathing?
We’re not very effective at breathing normally. It’s a very complex process and involves not just your mouth, nose and lungs, but also your intercostal muscles and diaphragm. If we were to focus on those parts of the body and breathe into them, we would really enhance the quality of our breath.
But we don’t do that. We’re shallow breathing, or breathing really fast, quite a lot of the time, particularly when we’re experiencing high levels of anxiety when the body goes into fight-or-flight mode. Therefore we’re not having an effective transfer of oxygen.
If we’re not getting an effective transfer of oxygen into the rest of the body, then that can do things to our heartbeat and our blood pressure, and has the ability to cause harm over a long period of time. So with breathing exercises, what we’re asking people to do is become a bit more aware of what their breath is doing, particularly when they are perhaps feeling a bit lightheaded.
How do you recommend people improve their breathing?
Interestingly, I’ve spoken about breathing to my patients much more in this last year, because we’ve seen a big increase in mental health issues – particularly panic attacks and anxiety attacks. Teaching how to breathe effectively has been one of my most widely used prescriptions.
One we tend to demonstrate is pursed lip breathing. Taking a deep breath in through the nose, then exhaling through pursed lips, as if blowing out birthday candles. You’re just regulating and slowing down the breath.
The other one that’s really effective is diaphragmatic breathing. Again, we tend to breathe from the chest or even throat and upwards. Instead try to take deep breaths right into your abdomen, pushing the diaphragm down and breathing into the belly. So breathe in through your nose, put your hand over your abdomen and feel that lifting, then exhale through pursed lips.
Are there any limits to breathing exercises? Is it fair to say it might not work for everyone?
I think this is where many people go wrong: we think that perhaps it benefits some people and not others, or that there are limits. We should teach children breathing exercises from a very early stage and it’s something that all of us should learn to practise.
Effective breathing regulates your heart rate and your blood pressure, it improves the pH balance in our blood – all these benefits have been proven. We’ve got lots of evidence for it, we just don’t tend to talk about it much.
It’s been shown that for people with chronic lung disease, teaching them breathing exercises actually improves and enhances their oxygen transfer.
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I’m going to be honest and say, up until a couple of years ago, I was a bit of a critic of tracking devices, because I thought, I don’t need to put something on my wrist to tell me whether I’m feeling stressed or if my heart rate is going up.
But actually, in general practice, I’m always asking my patients to track things. In old-school terms that might be: can you keep a journal of when you felt this or when you were doing X? And since getting my own fitness tracker I’ve been pleasantly surprised as to just how beneficial I find it. Something as simple as a record of your heart rate or your breathing – it gives you something to validate against. It gives you evidence to support how you might be feeling. And when you can see numbers, figures and stats in front of you, it just brings it all to the forefront, showing where changes need to be made. I feel that there’s a positive place for them. I just wish we could start prescribing them on the NHS.
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Jonathan Shannon has been the editor of the Coach website since 2016, developing a wide-ranging experience of health and fitness. Jonathan took up running while editing Coach and has run a sub-40min 10K and 1hr 28min half marathon. His next ambition is to complete a marathon. He’s an advocate of cycling to work and is Coach’s e-bike reviewer, and not just because he lives up a bit of a hill. He also reviews fitness trackers and other workout gear.