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  • Writer's pictureJohn Seivert

Breath and Your Health

After finishing our third full week of social distancing and the closures of all non-essential businesses, there has been a great deal of stress in our lives. I have found myself dealing with the pressures of continuing to keep my business open for essential treatments and negotiating the CDC protocols. The almost daily changes in protocols have all of us taking those deep breaths of frustration and angst. This deep breathing during stress is our body's natural way of letting off pressure.

Breath and yoga at the forefront

Yoga has been teaching various forms of breathing for more than five thousand years. Due to the extensive practice of yoga and research behind its benefits for general health, one of the most sought after effects that yoga offers is the calming, stress-relieving benefits that come from the many breathing exercises taught in yoga classes. Many other exercise and fitness disciplines have taken the concepts of yoga breathing and introduced it into their regimens.

Pilates and Breath

In Joseph Pilates' 1945 book "Return to Life," he talks about the three guiding principles – whole-body health, whole-body commitment, and breath. The deep breath work done in any pilates exercise is taken from the concepts of yoga. Joseph Pilates called the deep breath used during the exercises the “internal shower." He talks about getting the stale air out of the lungs with his breathing technique. The repetitive forceful exhale through pursed lips making the “Shh” sound as one empties their lungs creates improved lung function. See “The role of breath in Pilates” video done by Roxanna Cohen, PT, OCS, MSI Fellow at

Medicine and Breath

Many, if not all meditation techniques involve breathing exercises. A decade ago, there were very few meditation centers associated with extensive medical facilities. The medical profession was slow to embrace these techniques because there wasn't a strong body of research backing up their claims of improving health and wellness. Now there is a great deal of evidence in the use of meditation in treating chronic diseases and mental health issues. In Physical Therapy school, we were taught how to train a patient with any of the common Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Diseases (COPD) how to breathe. Five exercises can manage the symptoms of COPD.

1. Pursed lip breathing. Inhale on the count one, two. Purse your lips. Exhale slowly to a count of 4.

2. Coordinated breathing. This is done when doing something strenuous. Inhale through your nose. Purse your lips, breathe out when doing the difficult movement.

3. Deep breathing. Sit with your elbows back. Take a deep Inhale through your nose. Hold your breath for 5 seconds. Exhale through your nose slowly.

4. Huff Cough. Inhale, taking in a slightly deeper breath than normal. Blow out the air through pursed lips in 3 even breaths while making the sounds "ha, ha, ha." Imagine you are blowing onto a mirror to cause it to steam.

5. Diaphragmatic breathing. Lying on the floor, put a hand on your chest and place the other hand on your stomach. Take a breath in through your nose for 2-3 seconds, feeling your stomach move outward. With pursed lips, breathe out slowly for 5 seconds. You are feeling your stomach drop inward. Repeat the slow breathing pattern ten times or more.

These exercises improve a patients’ ability to exercise with greater capacity, less shortness of breath throughout the day, and improved quality of life.

Endurance Exercise and breath

Back in the 1980s when I was a triathlete, my swim coach had us do "Hypoxic training." The goals of these 25-yard sprints were to perfect the stroke technique while not worrying about breathing and to train the body to exercise without getting oxygen. They were typically 10-12 reps and quite taxing. The benefits were huge in lowering my resting heart rate and respirations per minute. It created improved cardiovascular fitness. Coach Charlie would always tell us that we were working smarter, not harder. There is also a great deal of interest in improving endurance athlete’s performance with “nose breathing” instead of “mouth breathing” during exercise. A study in 1976 from Japan suggested that tolerating higher levels of carbon dioxide in the body signifies a higher level of fitness. Other studies since then have supported these initial claims. The additional benefit of exercising with more carbon dioxide in the blood is that it creates the release of nitric oxide into the blood, which delivers more oxygen to cells. The heightened oxygenation is a natural performance enhancer. Researchers from a breathing institute in Ireland state that any athlete that incorporated nasal breathing into their training after a couple of weeks will exceed their personal bests, regardless of their sport.

With the coronavirus attacking our lungs, it is only fitting to maintain healthy lung function. All these disciplines mentioned are healthy ways to maintain good health and wellness. Yoga got us started and continues to help people breathe well to stay healthy and alive. Pilates, meditation, allopathic medicine, and athletic performance has tapped into the fine art of using the breath to live life to the fullest and excel in what we love doing.

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