Breath and Exercise: The Motivation You’ve Been Looking For

breathing and exercise

I think most of us know how important it is to exercise regularly. Numerous scientific studies show that you can’t live a healthy, long life without it. Daily exercise fights aging, regulates blood sugar and reverses weight gain. It relieves depression, wards off Alzheimer’s, lowers blood pressure, reduces stress and is a powerful antidote to fatigue and heart disease.

But guess which part of my recommended guidelines is the single hardest thing for my patients to stick to? You got it—regular exercise. Despite their best intentions, most of my patients allow exercise to fall by the wayside when life gets busy or stressful – just the time when it’s most important! But there is a way to begin or renew your commitment to physical fitness, something that should come easily to every woman because you have to do it anyway.

Breathe…deeply and often

Proper breathing fully oxygenates your cells, helping them function at an optimal level. We can’t survive more than a few moments without breath, yet we consistently overlook this most-important body function when we think about our well-being. As a bridge to exercise, breathing will jump-start or enhance many of its health benefits.

So let’s discuss why and how you should learn to breathe for your health.

Breathing for Health

At the Women to Women Health Care Center, many patients come through our doors knowing that diet and exercise is the cornerstone of good health. They want to “be better” about going to the gym but just can’t seem to stay with the physical piece for more than a couple of months. Most of my patients find it much easier to change their diet than their activity levels because they have to find time to eat—not so with exercise.

What’s surprising is that when I run the regular panel of tests on my patients, a majority of women show irregularly high levels of carbon dioxide in their blood. It’s consistently the most abnormal reading I see, including readings from standard glucose, kidney and liver tests.

While this isn’t life threatening, it does tell me that these patients aren’t inhaling enough oxygen or getting rid of enough carbon dioxide, which can have its own consequences like fatigue, mental fog and decreased tissue function. I often have to note “needs to breathe” on a patient’s chart. And I don’t mean the shallow chest breathing many of us default into; they need deep, meaningful breaths or “belly breathing.”

The Importance of Oxygen

Your cells must have oxygen to survive moment to moment. To thrive, they rely on a complex exchange between the circulatory system and the lymphatic system. Blood flow carries nutrients and ample amounts of oxygen into the capillaries, while a healthy lymphatic system carries away destructive toxins. Proper breathing is the master of this exchange.

One of the reasons aerobic exercise is good for you (and is so good at clearing away mental cobwebs) is that it ups your heart rate and forces your lungs to take in more oxygen while expelling more carbon dioxide. This gives your heart a good workout (it is a muscle after all) and pumps a quick jolt of oxygen through your cells, even those that may have been operating at reduced capacity.

Shallow breathing (or chest breathing) causes a constriction of the chest and lung tissue over time, decreasing oxygen flow and delivery to your tissues. Deep, rhythmic breathing that expands the diaphragm muscle— the cone-shaped muscle under your lungs—works like a pump in your body, expanding the lung’s air pockets and stimulating digestion and elimination by massaging the lymphatic system.

Breathing and Your Lymph System

We often don’t think about our lymph nodes unless we hear about someone with cancer, which is surprising since we have twice as many lymph vessels as blood vessels.

Your lymph system is like your body’s sewer system. Lymph vessels are everywhere in the body, our cells swim in an ocean of lymphatic fluid that carry away unused blood protein, dead cells and toxins. It works like this: blood is pumped around the body by the heart, transporting nutrients and oxygen to the cells. Once the cells have absorbed what they need, they excrete debris and toxins, which get flushed and deactivated by lymphatic fluid.

The lymph fluid then drains into the circulatory system through two ducts at the base of your neck (the thoracic duct) and become part of the blood and plasma that pass through the kidneys and liver. But unlike your circulatory system, your lymph system does not have a built-in pump. It relies on the acts of breathing and bodily movements to pass all that waste fluid.

The bottom line is if your lymph system is not working efficiently, you can’t detoxify properly. And if you aren’t breathing deeply or moving, chances are your lymph is not flowing as well as it could. As you might imagine, over time this can lead to some health concerns, including weight gain, muscle loss, high blood pressure, fatigue and inflammation.

But the great news is that you can begin moving lymph fluid more efficiently through your body by learning how to practice deep breathing. The expansion and contraction of the diaphragm actually pumps your lymph system and massages your internal organs, which helps rid the body of toxins, leaving more room in the cell for an optimal exchange of oxygen.

And while you are helping your body to clean house, you’ll also be fighting stress.

Related article: Lymphatic System – How to Keep Yours Healthy

Breathing and the Relaxation Response

Deep breathing is the fastest way to trigger the parasympathetic nervous system, or what some practitioners call the relaxation response. The sympathetic nervous system, which is stimulated in times of stress and anxiety, controls your fight or flight response, including the unhealthy spikes in cortisol and adrenaline.

As many of you know chronic stress depletes the body of nutrients and destabilizes brain and endocrine chemistry. Depression, muscle tension and pain, insulin sensitivity, GI issues, insomnia and adrenal fatigue among scores of other conditions are all related to an overworked sympathetic nervous system. What counteracts this mechanism? The parasympathetic nervous system.

Breath is the fastest way for these systems to communicate, flicking the switch from high alert to low in a matter of seconds.

When someone is scared or stressed, they tend to hold their breath or breathe rapid, shallow breaths. The heart pounds and muscles clench as the adrenaline kicks in (for more on this see our article on Anxiety). When the fright is over, they let out a deep breath; cuing the brain that everything is O.K. If deep breathing continues, the heart rate decreases, the lungs expand and the muscles relax. Equilibrium is restored.

Many Eastern cultures have long recognized the importance of breathing to cultivate a positive relationship between the body and the mind, one that results in a more tranquil state of being and a more resilient physiology. Yoga, qigong and Tai chi are such healthy practices because they combine deep breathing and movement to support a steady central nervous response.

And this can be important when you are trying to lose weight and burn fat.

Breathing and Weight Loss

A lot has been written about the cumulative benefits of aerobic and anaerobic exercise, although much of it is confusing and none of it seems to be definitive. What does seem to be clear is that you need both kinds of exercise to truly be fit. Anaerobic exercise (like sprinting and weight-training) builds strength and muscle mass and occurs when your muscles are metabolizing their own stored sugars (or glycogen) into lactic acid. This conversion does not need much oxygen in order to take place.

Aerobic exercise (like brisk walking, raking leaves, riding the treadmill) increases the body’s supply of oxygen to the cells (and the removal of lactic acid) by making your heart pump faster and your lungs breathe harder. If activity is continued for longer than 15 minutes, the body begins to draw on its reserves of fat to meet the higher energy demands. While the mechanism is complicated, the outcome is the same: aerobic activity burns fat, so in order to lose fat (or convert fat to muscle) you need to have an ample supply of oxygen.

And that’s where breathing comes in. Whatever stage you are at in your exercise routine, oxygenating your cells through deep breathing will enhance your body’s ability to “burn” fat even hours after you’ve stopped moving.

So now that you know breathing well is so important, let’s look at ways to practice it!

Breathing and Exercise — Breathing is the Essential Exercise

How do you know which kind of breathing you do? Try this test: Place one hand on your chest and one hand on your abdomen. Take a normal breath looking down. If the hand on your chest rises first, you tend to breathe in your chest. If the hand on your abdomen rises first, you are more of a belly breather.

Whatever you do naturally, the following exercises will teach you how to breathe more fully. They don’t take a lot of time, but work best if you commit to practicing for a few minutes every day. Over time, you will find that you are breathing more deeply throughout the day, even when you exercise—the best of both worlds!

If you find that you can’t make time to practice deep breathing regularly, think about all the good reasons why you should, then try to snatch little moments when you can take a deep resounding breath. Put sticky notes up around the house. I have a friend that put a “Just Breathe” sticker on her printer, so that every time she’s waiting for a document she remembers to inhale. Fully exhaling and inhaling at every stoplight is a good trick too—and helps counteract any road rage.

Basic Deep Breathing:

The most basic thing to remember is that your breath begins with a full exhalation (I know this seems counter-intuitive, but it’s true). You can’t inhale fully if you don’t empty your lungs completely. Also, try to breathe in through your nose. It acts as a filter against any impurities in the air.

So try this: Sit in a comfortable position with your hands on your knees. Relax your shoulders. On your next exhale, breathe out slowly through your nose counting to five. Tense your belly, drawing in your diaphragm to help your lungs deflate. At the bottom of your breath, pause for two counts then inhale slowly to the count of five. Expand your belly as you breathe in. Now close your eyes and repeat 5-10 times. Think of your diaphragm as a pump and your breath is the power.

If you find that your mind wanders during this exercise, don’t worry. Just try to refocus on counting. Some of my patients finds it helps to think of a happy color (like yellow) when they breathe in and a droopy color (like grey) as they breathe out. As you grow more aware of your breath, you’ll find that it becomes easier to breathe deeply without so much attention.

The Bellows Breath or Fire Breath:

This is an exercise that stimulates energy when you need it, toning the abdomen and massaging the internal organs and lymph system. It is not deep breathing, but it helps exercise the lungs, neck, chest and abdomen so that deeper breathing comes more naturally.

Again, sit in a comfortable position. With your mouth closed breathe in and out of your nose as fast as possible. Think of pumping up a balloon or water toy. Try to breathe in and out as equally as possible, Continue for 10-15 seconds, no more at first. As you become more used to this technique you can increase the exercise for one full minute.

Three-Part Breathing:

This technique is very useful during times of stress. It is extremely relaxing and can be done before bed to help with sleep issues.

Again, sit comfortably and close your eyes. With your mouth closed, exhale deeply through your nose. Imagine that you are pouring the breath out of a jug, starting at the top of your chest and moving down through your mid-torso and into your diaphragm. Pause for two counts at the bottom of the breath and then inhale through your nose. Refill the jug slowly, counting to five (or seven if you can make it). Start at the bottom, expanding your diaphragm and belly, and then expand your mid-torso and then the top of your chest and lungs. Pause for two counts and exhale as before. Repeat 5-10 times.

There are many other ways to begin practicing healthy deep breathing. The best way to find out more is to ask your healthcare practitioner. You can also log onto www.authentic-breathing.com for additional exercises and information. Your local yoga studio or health club may be able to suggest some classes in breathing awareness techniques. There are many good books on the subject, including Dennis Lewis’ s The Tao of Natural Breathing and Conscious Breathing by Gay Hendricks.

Breathwalk and Other Mindful Exercises

Many of my patients have had great success using breath to heal their health concerns with a program called Breathwalk (www.breathwalk.com) This is a comprehensive healthcare technique that combines rhythmic breathing with customized walking routines. There are classes and special events that take place around the country. A Breathwalk plan can be tailored to meet your specific needs by matching your specific health concern with their proven breath-walk combinations.

Breathwalk combines the everyday act of breathing with another activity the body was designed to do: walk. Even if you don’t feel up to a daily slog to the gym or yoga studio, the benefits of deep breathing are multiplied when combined with any kind of physical exercise. Start slowly with a walk to the mailbox or park your car a little farther away from the store than usual. Focus more on your breath, adding a little more aerobic activity each day. If you feel tired or winded, rest a minute and breathe deeply. Then try a little more.

Once you have worked up your tolerance for walking, continue your deep-breathing routine but add two minutes a day to your activity level. If you can walk at a regular pace without fatigue or pain for 20 minutes, you may be ready to add additional aerobic or resistance training. Talk to your medical professional about what is safe for you.

Enhance Your Exercise Routine

If you are currently exercising, think about how your routine could be enriched by paying more attention to your breath. Mindful exercise that synchronizes movement and breath has the power to change more than how you look. A 2002 study from Columbia University showed that yogic deep-breathing techniques were as good at handling depression, eating disorders and obesity as other forms of medicine.

Many local YWCAs, community centers and health clubs recognize the importance of breathing and exercise. Classes in healthy techniques like Pilates and yoga are now standard fare. Taking it one step at a time with respect and consideration towards your amazingly complex body will ensure that you create a lifetime of exercise and well being, not just a passing resolution.

Tips for Supporting Your Body

Remember that your cells also need proper nutrition in addition to oxygen to function well. With this in mind, we have a few other recommendations to help support your body on its journey toward deep breathing and integrated physical fitness.

  • Take a daily multivitamin with enough calcium, magnesium and a EFAs to ensure a regular supply of rich nutrition.
  • Use a natural progesterone cream to promote a healthy supply of progesterone, a metabolic building block for testosterone and other steroid hormones that help build muscles.
  • Try to stop smoking.
  • Drink at least 8-10 glasses of filtered water a day. Good hydration helps the lymph system flush toxins from your body and gives you more energy for activity.
  • Follow a balanced eating plan that includes protein at every meal. We recommend 5 smaller meals (3 meals and two snacks) per day. For more information please refer to our Nutritional and Lifestyle Guidelines.
  • Practice a gentle and supportive detox at least twice a year to give your kidneys, liver and lymph system a rest. Bouncing on a mini-trampoline or rebounder for 5 minutes a day will help pump your lymph fluid more efficiently.
  • Keep breathing! Commit to taking five deep breaths a day for the next week. Then make it ten. If you start a daily practice of deep breathing, you may be surprised how much easier it will be to start an exercise routine.
  • If you are mobile, start walking and breathing (in addition to your five deep breaths). Even twenty minutes a day can make a big difference in how you feel. Pump your arms and legs, breathe through your nose and smile!

Making Time for Yourself a Priority

I often tell my patients, “Pay yourself first.” So often, women make time for everyone else, rising to meet the demands of others before they nurture themselves. Learning how to breathe fully and deeply is a very small, but very important, way to take a moment to honor yourself and your miraculous life. In many cultures and religions, breath is life—a divine connection to a force that binds us all to the ebb and flow of nature.

By taking a few moments out of your day to really pay attention to the inhalations and exhalations that support your life, you will slowly and surely move toward a healthier and happier place. Remember, small changes add up to big improvements—and what better way to begin?

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Marcelle Pick has been working with women just like you for over 20 years to restore their hormonal balance and start feeling more like themselves.

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