Most of us take the act of breathing for granted. It’s an automatic bodily function that we barely notice, although we do it up to 30,000 times per day.
While breathing may appear to be simply the act of inhaling and exhaling, it’s actually a complex physiological process involving various muscles, blood vessels and organs such as the lungs, heart and brain. And in truth, many of us never learned how to breathe correctly when we were younger. Common mistake: If you fill up your lungs and then your stomach with each breath, that’s actually known as “reverse breathing” or “shallow breathing.” Proper breathing starts deep in the abdomen and then moves up to the lungs.
When breathing is normal, there is little to think about. But when we are not able to get enough oxygen into our bodies, it can hinder our ability to function and it can be frightening. Examples: Conditions such as asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), being overweight (especially if you carry a lot of weight in your middle section) and COVID-19 infection can impair breathing, causing shortness of breath, a recurring cough and constant pain in the chest.
Important: Even if your lungs are damaged by disease, proper breathing can reawaken portions of the lungs that haven’t been used and may improve COPD, asthma and possibly COVID-19 symptoms.
HOW TO BREATHE CORRECTLY
Practicing this simple exercise, known as the diaphragmatic breath, for 20 to 30 minutes each day can strengthen your ability to breathe deeply and fully, deliver more oxygen to cells throughout your body and improve alertness and exercise endurance throughout the day. Improved breathing also helps keep stress and anxiety at bay. If you prefer, break it into two 15-minute sessions rather than all at once.
Sit in a comfortable chair that enables proper posture, with feet flat on the floor or on a pillow and your back supported.
1. Inhale for a count of four through the nose. It’s better to breathe in through the nose than the mouth because the nostrils moisturize and warm air, purifying the breath as it goes into the body. Inhale from the bottom up as if filling a balloon with air—first expand the lower belly (below the belly button), then the rib cage, then the upper chest, which will fully expand your lungs. Important: When your lungs are fully expanded, your collarbone may rise up, but keep your shoulders relaxed and below your ears to prevent tension in your neck.
2. Exhale through pursed lips for a count of four from the top down. Initially, the length of your exhalation should be equal to the length of your inhalation. Gradually increase the exhales to last up to twice as long as the inhales. Start by expelling air while pulling in the upper chest, then the rib cage and lastly the belly. At the end of the exhalation, your belly should be pulled in toward the spine. Breathing out in this order is a more effective way to expel all of the stale air and carbon dioxide from your body.
Keeping your lips pursed slows down the breath, giving you more control over the exhalation so you can breathe out more deeply. A secondary benefit is that it relaxes you, particularly beneficial for people with COPD and other lung diseases who become anxious and fearful when short of breath, making it even more difficult to breathe deeply.
Advanced: Work up to inhaling and exhaling for longer counts. Goal: Inhale for a count of five, hold for a count of 20, and exhale for a count of 10.
RELAXATION AND DEEP BREATHING
If you prefer, you can perform diaphragmatic breathing while lying on your back. This “torso opener” exercise opens up the chest, which allows you to breathe even more deeply than when you are sitting in a chair. It even can improve digestion—when seated, having a big belly or hunching over with rounded shoulders can impede digestion.
1. Lie on a yoga mat or towel with your head on a pillow and your arms to your sides. Put a blanket or bolster under your knees or let your legs lie flat.
2. Place an eye mask over your eyes.
3. Practice diaphragmatic breathing and relax in this position for 10 to 15 minutes.
4. Come out of the position slowly to regain your bearings as you stand up.
It is important to strengthen muscles that support breathing and improve circulation. When muscles are strong and breathing is deep, more oxygen is pushed out to the body’s cells. Perform three to five repetitions of each of the following seated exercises daily…
1. Inhale as you touch your fingertips to the tops of your shoulders with your elbows close together in front of your chest.
2. Exhale with pursed lips as you move the elbows out to the side of your body. Feel your shoulder blades squeeze together as you bring the elbows back.
3. Move your elbows back to the first position, and repeat.
1. Inhale and extend your arms out to the front with your palms facing up. Keep your arms at about the same height as your shoulders.
2. Exhale with pursed lips, bend your elbows and bring your fingertips to the tops of the shoulders. Don’t hike your shoulders up.
3. Return to the starting position, and repeat.
1. Inhale and bring your arms straight up overhead. They should be aligned with your ears and your palms should face inward. Don’t tense up the shoulders.
2. Exhale through pursed lips, and swing your arms down behind your body keeping your palms facing inward. Squeeze the area between the shoulder blades.
3. Return to the starting position and repeat.
1. Inhale and stretch your arms out to the side. Don’t hike your shoulders up. Keep your arms relaxed and your palms facing down.
2. Exhale through pursed lips as you stretch to the left.
3. Inhale and return to the upright position.
4. Exhale through pursed lips, and lean to the right.
5. Return to the starting position, and repeat.
1. Inhale and extend your arms to the sides with palms facing in and down.
2. Exhale with pursed lips, and twist your upper body to the right slowly, progressively rotating from the waist up, bringing your head around last. Turn as far as is comfortable.
3. Inhale and return to the neutral position.
4. Exhale with pursed lips as you twist to the left.
5. Return to the starting position, and repeat.