Make breathing exercises a health habit

Make breathing exercises a health habit

Do you know what it feels like to have a stress free body, relaxed shoulders and to breathe lightly and effortlessly? Have you ever considered how crucial breathing and the oxygen it delivers is to how our bodies function? Our understanding about human bodies and its mechanisms increases constantly. This year’s Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine was given to discoveries on how cells adapt to oxygen availability. The significance of these discoveries is based on the physiological effects of oxygen availability on health and certain illnesses. This research has broadened our understanding of the mechanisms connected with oxygen availability. With that said, I’d like to bring up one of the easiest ways of affecting our bodies and stress levels positively – Breathing.

One of the simplest ways of helping our bodies recover is deep breathing. Something you do constantly throughout your life without even acknowledging can bring along several health benefits when done consciously, with thought. The correlation between breathing and psychological stress, as well as their correlation with the use of health services has been studied in Finland, too. By doing breathing exercises we can also improve our concentration and prevent insomnia. Breathing has several effects on our health because by breathing we affect our parasympathetic nervous system which affects how our bodies feel. Studies show that with the help of deep breathing we can lower our heart rate and the level of stress hormones measured from saliva. The stress and emotions we feel affect our bodies in different ways, but it’s also possible to use our bodies to affect how we feel. For example, stress makes our breathing more shallow but by breathing deep we can affect our feeling of stress.

The simplest way to explain what deep breathing is that it’s breathing deep while controlling your breath. There are many different kinds of breathing techniques and exercises. Here is an easy exercise that will get you started:

Settle into a comfortable position so that you can relax, focus and take a moment to yourself. You can close your eyes if it feels right. Breathe in slowly while counting to six. Breathe out slowly while counting to six, and hold your breath while counting to two. Repeat the previous steps; breathe in counting to six, breathe out and count to six, hold your breath. Repeat while drawing a rectangle in your mind. The long sides of the rectangles are breaths in and out, hold your breath during the short sides. Start practicing in small bits and increase the total time as you progress. Eventually you can extend the length of your breaths in and out and count to ten. Even just a few minutes of breathing is a good start. 

Once you’ve gotten a good start you can try different exercises and gradually increase the total time of each exercise. You’ll receive the greatest benefit by making breathing exercises a daily habit. By drawing the rectangle in your mind as you go your mind has something to focus on and you’ll be less distracted.

When you’re doing the exercises it’s good to remember to relax your midriff. If you’re tense your breathing will not be optimal. Try to direct your breathing to your ribs and lower abdomen rather than your shoulders. Breathe in through your nose, and breathe out either through your nose or mouth. You can let your thoughts come and go, or focus on an imagined figure like in the previous exercise. You may feel it’s hard to get started or it may feel uncomfortable, but keep in mind that the more difficult it feels to do breathing exercises the more you need them. Repetition is key and the more often you do the exercises, the faster you’ll start reaping in the benefits. Once you teach yourself these skills you can take your moment to breathe anywhere, even if your surroundings aren’t optimal for a calm moment.

Here are some exercises you can try once you’ve made some progress:

  • 4-6-8 exercise: Breathe in while counting to four, hold your breath while counting to six and breathe out while counting to eight.
  • Midriff breathing: Lay one hand down on your abdomen and the other on your chest. Breathe in a manner where only your abdomen is moving and chest stays as still as possible.
  • Effective breaths out: Breathe out very slow, long breaths emptying your lungs completely. Pay attention to how your breath in is completely automatic and effortless after breathing out effectively.
  • Yoga breath exercise: Sit in a comfortable position and place your index finger on your other nostril blocking the airway. Breathe in and switch your finger to the other side. Breathe in again and without switching sides breathe out. Repeat this and switch nostrils as you go.

If you want to mix it up try doing these exercises in different positions from time to time. Take your relaxation and recovery into your own hands and complete a breathing exercise at least once a day. With your example you can encourage your colleagues and make breathing exercises a healthy habit in your work community.

Written by:

Mia Bäck
Sports instructor (Bachelor), Health Coach, NLP Practitioner and Pilates Health coach.

1. Press Release: The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 2019. Nobel Media AB 2019.
2. Selinheimo, Vasankari etc. The association of psychological factors and healthcare use with the discrepancy between subjective and objective respiratory-health complaints in the general population. Psychol Med. 2008
3. Perciavalle, Blandini etc. The role of deep breathing on stress. University of Catania, Catania, Italy. 2016
4. André Christophe. Proper breathing brings better health. Scientific American Jan 15th 2019