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Breathing (Part I)
I had a great conversation with someone at the gym recently about breathing. He was wondering how to breathe specifically during exercise, but then inquired about how he should breathe on a daily basis to maximize his health.
Breathing is one of those silly things that we do subconsciously, but can easily be done incorrectly. There are also a slew of health effects, both good and bad, that can come specifically from how we breathe at any given moment.
James Nestor's book Breath opened my eyes again to just how important these things can be. Nestor was obsessed with figuring out why we have so many modern health issues related to this seemingly simple, subconscious act. What he discovered was that the way we breathe now differs greatly from practices that were prevalent in ancient cultures, and that these differences can explain why we suffer so commonly from things like snoring and sleep apnea.
From a biological perspective, the way we are meant to breathe is primarily through the nose. The inside of the nose filters out harmful particles, and nasal breathing allows other functions in our body to work as intended. The problem is that now, so many of us regularly breathe through our mouths.
Nestor underwent an experiment while writing Breath in which he spent a period of time only breathing through his mouth, and another period of time only breathing through his nose. The findings were shocking: he was substantially less healthy during the period of mouth breathing, and his biomarkers returned to normal when he started breathing through his nose again.
Mouth breathing was associated with higher resting heart rate, higher blood pressure, chronic bad breath, snoring and restlessness at night, and a slew of other problems. Mouth breathing has actually led to differences in the bone structure of our skulls when compared to our ancient ancestors. Nasal passages are, on average, smaller than before and our mouths and jaws are weaker.
The first step to fixing the way we breathe is to temporarily make it a conscious activity. Although it's impossible to consciously think about every single breath we take, focusing on actively breathing through our nose and keeping our mouth closed will pay dividends. Aim to breathe deeply into the belly instead of up into the chest. If you'd like to exhale through your mouth, that is completely fine. Just inhale through the nose first.
At night, the practice of taping your mouth shut can help you continue nasal breathing while you're asleep. If you typically breathe through your mouth, this can be a shock to the system. In that case, I'd recommend doing it during the day for short bursts first (ideally while alone so you don't get strange looks). All you need is a small piece of tape connecting the center of both lips. I highly recommend this medical tape as it holds well while being easy to remove (I haven't lost a single mustache hair, promise).
During exercise, the same rules apply. Nasal breathing actually allowed cyclists in a study to maintain a lower average heart rate at a higher average speed vs mouth breathing. For any type of consistent, aerobic activity, I recommend breathing through the nose as long as possible. It will take time to adjust, but you will immediately start feeling more "in control" during these efforts. Make sure these breaths are going into the belly and expanding the rib cage first, before going up into the chest.
When it comes to higher-intensity work, it is almost impossible to strictly breathe through the nose. That said, being conscious of how you're breathing is beneficial for regulating heart rate and perceived effort. If you find yourself taking fast, shallow breaths, aim to lengthen your inhales and exhales. Take one massive breath in through the nose to kickstart this process and immediately bring your heart rate back under control. A good time to practice this is while transitioning between movements or when taking brief rests between sets of work. Again, we want to focus on breathing into the belly and rib cage before breathing up into the chest.
Keep in mind that breath work is a lifelong journey. Fixing the way you breathe will take time given how long you've spent building the habits you currently have! Like anything, conscious work is always helpful. Additional time spent breathing through your nose, while awake or asleep, will have positive effects on your health. The goal is to move the needle in the right direction by building better habits now, not to be perfect overnight.
Next week I will do a deeper dive into specific breath work practices for achieving different results. We will discuss how to regulate the nervous system, and how certain practices have different physiological effects on the body.
The most interesting things I've encountered this week:
What I'm reading: The Oxygen Advantage by Patrick McKeown
If this breathing stuff really interests you, The Oxygen Advantage is another excellent resource. This book was recommended to me years ago by someone at the gym, and started the long journey of understanding breath work that I've been on since.
For a deeper dive on breathing: My thread on Twitter
For a good overview of some specific breathing strategies that have different effects on the body and nervous system, check out this thread. I mention a way to instantly calm down, a way to gain clarity and become alert, and a way to regulate our ability to deal with discomfort. I will do a much deeper dive on all of these strategies in next week's newsletter, but this thread will help if you want to try new things now.
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