Every Breath You Take

Breathing is so automatic that you don’t even have to think about it, right? Wrong— especially while you are working out. In addition to food and water, your body needs to process oxygen, transferring it from the lungs through the bloodstream to the muscles. There is a growing belief that the effectiveness of any exercise program at any level is impacted by breathing efficiency and technique. In fact, many trendy fitness centers have been adding breathing classes, and athletes seeking peak performance are turning to breathing coaches as part of their training.

“your body needs to process oxygen”

In fact, the role of breathing in various body functions is nothing new. Breathing is an integral part of such Eastern disciplines as yoga and tai chi. Weightlifters and bodybuilders exhale so forcefully while they are lifting that they grunt as they lift. Even ordinary people on weight-training programs are routinely instructed to “breathe on the exertion” when they lift. Lamaze and other childbirth preparation programs use controlled breathing as a way to relax. Oxygen bars flared up as a ’90s fad. It has long been known that the lung capacity of well-conditioned athletes exceeds that of ordinary people, but this was generally considered to be an effect of training.

During the course of an ordinary day, adults take an average of 28,000 breaths, most of which are shallow inhalations in which air does not reach deep into the lungs. Such shallow breathing tightens neck muscles, which in turn can cause stiffness and pain in the neck, upper back, chest, and shoulder areas. You might find it ironic to have to relearn, or at least become aware of, proper breathing.

Breathing workshops use the diaphragm to breathe deeply and rhythmically, expanding the rib cage and pulling air down to the bottom of the lungs and deep into the belly. Poses derived from yoga and exercises to enhance awareness of what part of the lungs is filling are part of such classes. Some instructors then move students onto aerobic machines so they can practice their new breathing techniques and at the same time increase their exercise intensity.

You can begin to enhance your awareness of your own breathing with a simple exercise. Lie on your back with your hands on your diaphragm. Begin breathing slowly, deeply, and rhythmically, inhaling through the nose and exhaling through the mouth. Feel your chest and midsection rise and fall with each breath. Move your hands down to your abdomen and try to expand the belly as you inhale.

This exercise is useful when you need to relax, when you need to charge up, or when you need to focus on your body.

Awareness of your breathing patterns leads to the next step, which is applying them to your workouts. Inhale deeply several times as part of your warm-up. This primes your air pump, which is what your lungs are. During aerobics, breathe through your nose as long as you can, because the nose helps humidify the dry air of the gym. When you are breathing hard and your nose can’t pull in enough air, open your mouth to fill your lungs.

Exhale on the exertion when you are contracting your muscles (as in lifting a weight); inhale as you return to your starting position (as in releasing the weight). Be sure not to hold your breath. For many people, this is a natural reaction to muscular exertion. During the cool-down, your heart rate and breathing will return to normal. Finally, while you are stretching, breathe naturally and evenly, inhaling deeply at the farthest extension of a stretch to lengthen the muscles a bit more.

What does all this deep breathing do outside the gym? There are various opinions, although most authorities believe it is good for you. One school believes that oxygen intake is determined by how much of it the body needs, while another school believes that a regimen including controlled deep breathing actually increases the metabolism. Both sides agree that breathing properly is relaxing and stress-reducing, and it is less taxing on your neck muscles. And, oh yes, it will improve your performance as well.