Don’t blow off the amazing long-term mind-body benefits of deep breathing. Your heart, brain, lungs, immune system and mood all get a boost, and new research keeps finding additional bonuses.
All it takes to get more of the benefits? Five minutes a day of mindful inhalations.
The latest news about breathing’s so-easy, so-powerful, do-anywhere health perks comes from the Cleveland Clinic, where Dr. Mike is chief wellness officer.
When 300 people test-drove a new Internet-based stress-management program that included meditation with deep breathing, their stress levels fell 25 percent. That’s a lot of “ah.” And the payoff is huge, too: When stress fades, you’re better able to avoid or control health conditions made worse by tension, such as asthma, heart disease, obesity, diabetes, headaches, depression, digestive woes and accelerated aging.
But if you rarely pay attention to your breathing, you’re not alone. Chances are you use just one-third of your lung capacity. That’s because you have slouchy posture and spend oodles of time hunched behind the wheel of your car or in front of a digital device.
The result? Shallow breathing that doesn’t fully use the bottom portion of your lungs, which is home to hundreds of tiny blood vessels that help transfer oxygen from the air you inhale into your bloodstream and then help remove carbon dioxide with each exhalation.
Taking shallow breaths also means you’re missing out on the nervous-system calming effects of activating the sheet of muscle between your lungs and lower abdomen (diaphragm).
As it moves up and down, helping fill your bloodstream with energizing oxygen, it also switches on your body’s relaxation response. That may be why breathing exercises, sometimes combined with meditation or yoga, are proven to help lower blood pressure, improve asthma symptoms, ease feelings of panic and anxiety, reduce pain, ease chest pain due to angina and help people with diabetes better control their blood sugar.
There’s even evidence that slow, calm breathing may boost production of alpha brain waves that put you into a relaxed, alert zone. And it improves heart health by boosting heart-rate variability, a sign of a relaxed, responsive cardiovascular system.
So here are four fun ways to be a better breather.
Practice belly breathing. Sit or lie down comfortably, with your right hand resting lightly on your chest and your left hand resting on your belly button. As you breathe in, gently expand your belly so your left hand rises. (Try to keep your chest still to prevent shallow breathing.) Fill your lungs from the bottom to the top. As you exhale, purse your lips to blow out the air, and suck your belly button in toward your spine. Try to empty your lungs completely. Inhale and exhale gently this way for five minutes; if you feel lightheaded, go easier on the inhalations. This is a great way to unwind before you go to sleep.
Tap into an app. Several free apps for smartphones and laptops can help you breathe better with guided exercises: Breath Pacer and Breathe2Relax are two.
Use your breath for a.m. energy. In the morning, try this before your first cup of joe! Stand up. Inhale as you reach for the sky, chin high, mouth open, arms overhead. Exhale slowly and evenly as you slowly bend your head and shoulders forward, and then bend from your waist with hands extended toward the floor. Repeat. This stretches your neck, shoulders, back and core, clears your nasal passages and delivers plenty of wake-you-up oxygen to your brain and body.
Beat the afternoon slump with a lung-powered pick-me-up. Instead of cola or a sugary treat, try this: Sit in a chair with your feet placed evenly on the floor, arms relaxed at your sides. Using your diaphragm to move air in and out of your lungs, breathe rapidly (about three breaths per second) for five to 15 seconds. You’ll feel revitalized!
Mehmet Oz, M.D. is host of “The Dr. Oz Show,” and Mike Roizen, M.D. is Chief Wellness Officer and Chair of Wellness Institute at Cleveland Clinic. To live your healthiest, tune into “The Dr. Oz Show” or visit www.sharecare.com.