We breathe in and out roughly 25,000 times a day. And yet, according to experts, including pulmonologists and psychiatrists, most of us are doing it wrong — breathing too rapidly and too shallowly.
Over the last few decades, research has started to confirm what ancient cultures around the world have long believed: Breath work, the practice of correcting and controlling your breathing through simple exercises, can improve health and well-being.
At rest, your breathing should be slow and steady, between 12 and 20 breaths per minute. Consciously slowing that even further — to between five to seven breaths per minute at rest — can help reduce blood pressure, regulate heart rate and lift mood. Researchers have also reported that breathing slowly can reduce chronic pain, stress and depression, and bolster fitness and energy levels.
One study, published last April, found that breath work helped recovering Covid-19 patients return to healthy respiratory rates. And another study, published in November, found that breathing exercises — among other mindfulness practices — were as effective as drugs to treat anxiety disorders.
When sick, stressed or anxious, many people start breathing rapidly from the top of the chest, which activates the body’s sympathetic nervous system, said Dr. Melis Yilmaz Balban, a neurobiology researcher at Stanford University and co-author of a study published in January on how breath work can be used to lift mood. Breathing in this way raises your heart rate, suppresses digestion and heightens the brain’s tendency to detect danger, whether real or imagined.
Many people find it difficult to slow their breathing even after a threat or source of stress has subsided, and may end up developing unhealthy breathing habits in the long term. When breath, pulse and blood pressure remain elevated, “that stressful day becomes a stressful week becomes a stressful month,” said Stuart Sandeman, a London-based coach who helps people improve their breathing and is the author of “Breathe In, Breathe Out.”
The mechanism that makes a lot of breath work effective for enhancing mental, emotional and physical health is that it forcibly slows breathing down, said Dr. Raj Dasgupta, a pulmonologist and sleep medicine specialist at Keck Medicine of University of Southern California, who uses breathing exercises with patients who have chronic lung diseases or insomnia. When you slow your breathing down, “the parasympathetic system — what we call the ‘rest and digest’ system — hopefully takes over and helps calm you down,” he said.
Additionally, “with any type of breath work exercise, we are forced to pay attention to our breath and our internal state,” said Dr. Yilmaz Balban. “It brings you into the moment.”
Dr. Dasgupta noted that even if you have health conditions that affect breathing, it’s safe to attempt to deepen and slow your breaths bit by bit. “When my chronic lung disease patients start having a flare up and get that feeling of shortness of breath, of course they need their medications,” he said. “But I tell them that they should also focus on using that diaphragm muscle and slowing down the respiratory rate.”
The recent research into breathing upholds what “yogis and meditators have been talking about for thousands of years,” Mr. Sandeman said. “These older traditions knew the benefits of breathing well,” he added, and Western medicine is just beginning to catch up.
So, how do you get started? Here are three simple breathing exercises that the pulmonologists, sleep doctors and researchers consulted for this story recommend.
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Try this exercise if you are feeling anxious or scared.
What to do: Take a breath in for four counts, hold your breath for four counts and then exhale for eight counts. Repeat.
Narrated by Stuart Sandeman
Why this works: Several studies have found that purposefully extending your exhale to last longer than your inhale — which is what this exercise aims to do — can quickly slow your heart rate and bring blood pressure down. In fact, extending the exhale is also something that the body naturally tends to do every five minutes or so, Dr. Yilmaz Balban said, as a way for it to “kind of reset the breathing rhythm” and calm down.
Alternate nostril breathing
This exercise, borrowed from yoga practices, can help improve focus.
What to do: Close your right nostril and breathe in through your left nostril for a count of four. Now close your left nostril and breathe out from your right nostril for a count of four.
Narrated by Stuart Sandeman
Why this works: Ancient Hindu teachings said that each nostril was responsible for different functions in the brain and body, and intentionally switching between the left and right nostrils would balance those two systems and bring about focus, mental clarity and calm.
More recently, researchers have found some limited evidence to support those teachings, Dr. Yilmaz Balban said, with a handful of small studies demonstrating that the right nostril is connected to the sympathetic system — our fight or flight mode — while the left nostril is connected to the calmer parasympathetic system. At the very least, consciously switching between the two nostrils helps you tune out racing thoughts and focus on the moment, Dr. Yilmaz Balban added.
What to do: Breathe in for a count of four, hold your breath for a count of four, exhale for a count of four and hold your breath again for a count of four.
Narrated by Stuart Sandeman
Why this works: By making the inhalations, breath holds and exhales equal, you force your breathing into a steady rhythm, Mr. Sandeman said, keeping you alert and energized rather than lulling you into a completely relaxed state.
You can also try taking the breathing test again to see if you can slow your breath rate down.