How to breathe better

A Black woman taking a deep breath

Taking a deep breath is meant to be a catch-all cure for a multitude of ills.

Feeling stressed, angry, upset, tired, nauseous? Take a deep breath. It will help.

Breathing keeps us alive. We breathe in and out about 22,000 times a day, and we do it without thinking. But what happens when our breath rhythm is off? And how can you tell if you’re doing it wrong?

Experts believe that measuring our breath rate could be more important for our fitness, concentration, stress and even life expectancy, than tracking heart rate or steps. But research by smart wearables brand Amazfit shows that 68% of us do not know what a healthy breath rate range is – or how to monitor and control it.

So, how does breathing actually work? Understanding the mechanism is key to improving our technique.

The process of respiration provides the body with oxygen and removes carbon dioxide as a waste product, and the number of breaths we take per minute can be a marker of how healthy we are.

Breathing too quickly could contribute to problems including high blood pressure, stress and anxiety, while too slowly could indicate problems such as sleep apnoea or depression, due to the lack of oxygen and higher levels of carbon dioxide in the body. 

Breath rate is also increasingly important this winter as breathlessness is noted as the second most common symptom for those suffering from Covid and Long Covid, according to the Office of National Statistics.

Scientists at the University of Rome found that measuring breath rate is ‘superior’ to tracking other vital health statistics, including pulse, but this metric is often overlooked. 

Another study published in the European Heart Journal found breath rate was linked with heart attack mortality for those at high-risk. Heart and circulatory diseases cause a quarter of all deaths in the UK, according to the British Heart Foundation.

Even those who are fit can optimise their physical performance and concentration by monitoring – and responding to – their breath rate. Studies show that slow-breathing exercises can help alleviate symptoms of depression, as well as reduction in blood pressure for patients with hypertension.

Meanwhile, current research at the University of Sheffield is underway to monitor more than a hundred people who have had Covid symptoms, including monitoring patterns with their breath rate. 

‘We know breath rate is an extremely useful measurement in a hospital setting, but until now we haven’t been able to measure it in a home environment,’ says Professor Allan Lawrie, from University of Sheffield. 

‘We aim to track over a hundred individuals to remotely monitor changes in their breath rate in combination with heart rate and activity to find out what we can learn about current and future cardiovascular and respiratory health.’

Dr Punam Krishan, an NHS GP with a special interest in lifestyle medicine, adds: ‘Life gets busy and taking time out to pause can often seem impossible. Learning to breathe effectively can become a powerful and effective tool that can be used anytime and anywhere to help restore calm, focus and clarity.’

Two simple breathing exercises to try

The anti-ager: Waterfall

‘Our metabolism produces toxic by-products, including carbon dioxide and other free radicals, and unless these are cleared, they can age our body. The key to this breath is a neurotransmitter called nitric oxide. When we breathe through our nose, the nitric oxide it creates has proven to take pressure off our heart, dilate blood vessels and even promote healthier chromosome lifespan.’

How to:

Sleep-booster: Rising Tide Breath

‘This works by soothing our internal fight and flight mechanism and replacing it with what our body needs to rest and digest. What sets this technique apart is how it stimulates the yawn reflex, which helps prepare our body to make the change in state from active to sleepy.’

How to:

21 Breaths: Breathing Techniques To Change Your Life by Oliver James is out now, priced £9.37, published by Unify, unicornpublishing.org

Five tips to control and improve your breath rate 

To help you put all of this advice into practice, Dr Punam has shared her top tips to help you breathe better:

Become aware of your breathing

‘Often we breathe fast and shallow, which isn’t effective, so it’s important to become conscious of how you breathe,’ says Dr Punam.

‘Practice breathing deeply by taking deep breaths in through your nose with one hand on your chest and the other on your belly, feeling both hands rise and fall as you breathe out through your mouth.’

Dr Punam says this deeper breathing will ensure better airflow and more oxygen into the body.

‘If you’re using a wearable device, you’ll notice your pulse and heartbeat instantly slow as your stress levels reduce,’ she says.

Use pursed lips to breathe

‘Pursing your lips when you’re short of breath can help you relax, and slows the pace of your breathing by using less energy,’ says Dr Punam.

Exercise regularly

Regular aerobic exercise doesn’t just help you lose weight, Dr Punam says it can help to improve your lung capacity and increase your oxygen intake too.

‘It doesn’t have to be in a gym – brisk walking or jogging at a comfortable pace, where you can talk but are a bit breathless, is just as good,’ she adds.

Try boxed breathing

‘Imagine a square, and with each breath in and out, visualise moving round this square to a count of four or longer if you can manage it. You can do this whenever or wherever by breathing in for four, holding for four, then breathing out for four, and repeating as much as you need,’ says Dr Punam.

‘This is a great way to relax, and can even help you fall asleep.’

Prioritise your posture

Dr Punam says posture is often overlooked, but it can have a significant effect on the quality of your breathing, by putting extra stress on your upper body and the muscles in your chest, especially if you’re sitting for long periods.

To improve your posture, she suggests trying the following steps when working from home or sitting at a desk:

  • Keep your feet flat, or on a footrest.
  • Avoid crossing your knees or ankles.
  • Maintain a small gap between the back of your knees and your chair, positioning them at the same height as the hips.
  • Relax your shoulders and straighten your back.
  • Hold your elbows at the side of your body in an L-shape, resting your wrists on the table.
  • Keep your back against the chair, or use a supportive cushion in places where it does not comfortably meet.
  • If you’re looking at a computer screen, use a stand to ensure the screen is at your natural eye level when sitting,
  • Don’t forget to take regular breaks to stand up and walk around.

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