How to breathe for physical and mental health


Breathing is an action we take for granted. It’s instinctive, requiring no cognitive thought. But what if, like dolphins, it had to be consciously done? What if, as part of our design, it should be consciously done? And if we decided to concentrate on it and set out to try to breathe more efficiently, what sort of impact might it have on our training, or on our everyday lives?

Becoming conscious of how we breathe may seem silly, but it seems it might make a much bigger difference to us than previously thought possible.

Instinctive breathing

Most of us breathe through our mouths, with associated body movements concentrated in the neck and shoulders. This leads us to take small, short breaths, making the heart work harder to push blood around the system. However, while this may be instinctive and easy, not only is it inefficient through the neglect of our primary breathing muscle, new research suggests we may be disrupting brain function.

The benefits of nasal breathing

Our primary breathing muscle is the diaphragm and one of the simplest ways to use it is to breathe in deeply through the nose and then into the belly. By consciously using our diaphragm to breathe we can consume more oxygen in a single breath, which brings significant physical benefits:

  • It enables the take-up of more oxygen into our system, so decreasing our rate of fatigue when performing endurance exercise
  • By bracing the abdominal wall and increasing the amount of oxygen in our body we create more internal pressurization. This in turn provides more stability for the spine when lifting weights, which is especially important for big compound movements such as squats and deadlifts
  • In daily life, deep breathing through the nose and diaphragm can decrease stress. Breathing using the mouth, neck and shoulders only delivers short breaths, meaning we need more of them. This puts pressure on the heart to beat faster, which can lead to further unnecessary stress on the body

Yet the benefits don’t stop with our physical health, with the impact of this simple tweak extending to our cognitive health. Memories pass through three main stages in their development: encoding, consolidation, and retrieval. Growing evidence suggests that nasal respiration plays an important role, entraining neural oscillations that enhance the encoding and recognition processes.

Extraordinary as it may seem, bypassing nasal airflow by mouth-breathing abolishes the respiratory-locked hippocampal rhythms that are implicated in the scaffolding and transfer of information between sensory and memory networks in our brains. Breathing through our mouths destroys these rhythms and impacts encoding as well as recognition processes, so reducing memory performance. Indeed, the researchers claim their results provide the first evidence that respiration directly impacts consolidation of episodic events, lending further support to the notion that core cognitive functions are modulated by the respiratory cycle.

Drawing breath may be instinctive, but how we do it clearly makes a considerable difference to our health. Dolphins need to do it consciously just to survive, ensuring all the other benefits. We have lost the imperative and so the potential benefits, but just a little effort will bring rewards in your exercise routine and beyond – even helping you remember to do so!

Go on, take a deep breath in through the nose and feel the difference.

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Alex is a registered Master Trainer and Nutritional Advisor with Level 4 qualifications in obesity and diabetes. He is also a strength specialist and a Ni Dan in Shotokan Karate.

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