Improving your overall health is as simple as breathing. Just doing it better.
How’s your breath? We’re not talking about popping a breath mint (well, maybe—keep reading for more on that). Rather, how easy is it to breathe in deeply, right now?
While breathing has certainly been discussed more seriously since the COVID-19 pandemic hit in full force, many of us still move through our days without a thought about the some 25,000 breaths we’re taking. But maybe we should be paying closer attention. Studies show that the way we breathe can affect everything from our weight, to our mood, to our athletic performance, and so much in between.
As usual, a little mindfulness and focused attention go a long way. Here’s how to breathe better:
Breathe through your nose. Not your mouth.
We’ll give you the bad news first. Chronically breathing through the mouth can increase your risk of respiratory infection, irritate your lungs, and drain the body’s moisture. It is also commonly linked to bad breath—cue the mints from earlier.
Now for the good news. Breathing through the nose forces us to take deeper breaths, which has countless benefits. We take in more oxygen and more nitric oxide with it, increasing circulation and blood flow. Nitric oxide gets nutrients flowing to all parts of the body, which influences weight, immune function, and mood. Oh, and it helps sexual functioning too.
Practice breathing from your belly.
Are you breathing from your diaphragm? Probably not as efficiently as you could be. According to the New York Times, “the average adult engages as little as 10 percent of the diaphragm, the jellyfish-shaped muscle under the lungs primarily responsible for respiration.” Taking shallow breaths from the chest keeps us tense and stressed by straining the neck and shoulders. Breathing deeply from the diaphragm (or what feels like the belly) provides the lungs with more oxygen, which means less stress.
Practice this by lying flat on your back, knees bent, with one hand on the chest. Once you start deep breathing, this hand should not move. Rest your other hand on your stomach. Slowly breathe in through the nose and feel your belly push up against that hand. Exhale slowly. Repeat.
Loosen up. Literally.
As we mentioned earlier, shallow breathing puts a strain on the muscles in the neck and shoulders, causing them to become tight and knotted up. When the muscles in the upper body are too tight, it is more difficult to breathe normally. A vicious cycle of shallow breaths and tense muscles ensues.
Break free from this cycle of low-grade stress by loosening up those muscles with a massage ball (a tennis ball works just as well). Simply lean against a wall with the ball sandwiched behind your upper back. Bend your knees and lift your heels to roll the ball around.
Posture makes a difference.
Slouching constricts the diaphragm, making it harder to breathe deeply. Be mindful of how you stand or sit for long periods of time. Move around. Stand up tall. There are countless yoga poses that help improve posture, including “legs up the wall,” which doubles as a stress reliever. Win/win!