Fitness First: Breathe Easier With These Exercises

Krista Howell
By Krista Howell December 15, 2015 09:50

man breathing deeplyWe don’t give a lot of thought to the ins and outs of breathing.

Although breathing is vitally important, we do it most of the time without thinking. Our brain takes over, controlling respiration as we negotiate the physical demands of each day.

Breathing brings in oxygen, then delivers it to the bloodstream. Diaphragm muscles under the rib cage expand and contract our lungs, adjusting the pressure needed to inhale and exhale. Normal respiration is 18 to 20 breaths a minute.

But sometimes breathing doesn’t feel normal. Shortness of breath – dyspnea in medical parlance – is a signal that something is wrong. It could be asthma, pulmonary hypertension (high blood pressure in the veins and arteries serving the lungs), COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease), emphysema, pneumonia or congestive heart failure.

Shortness of breath doesn’t always mean you’re suffering from one of these diseases: Many of us experience breathlessness during quick bursts of activity – like climbing a flight of stairs or biking up a steep hill. These anaerobic exercises – unlike sustained aerobic exercise such as long-distance running or walking – are so quick and strenuous that the heart can’t keep up with the oxygen demand for long.

If you are healthy, stopping at the top of the stairs or after a steep ride to catch your breath is normal – as long as you recover within a couple of minutes. If recovery takes much longer, there could be a problem, and you may want to check with your doctor.

We interview cardiac surgery patients before they begin rehabilitation and review symptoms they had before their procedures, which include bypass surgery, coronary stenting or valve repair.

“I’d get short of breath walking to my mailbox,” a typical patient might tell me. For years that short walk had been easy but over time became a major chore.

Patients like this are short of breath because their hearts cannot keep up with their bodies’ demand for oxygen even during moderate exercise. Surgery or medication are often the only answers.

For those of us breathing well, doing exercises to maintain and improve lung function is important. Such exercises can help you become more physically and mentally aware of your body, and are easy activities to add to your day. Controlled, deliberate breathing is a key part of yoga, tai chi and swimming. Benefits include stress reduction, anxiety relief and relaxation.

Here are a few breathing exercises you can try at home:

Breath counting: Sitting or standing in a relaxed, upright posture, breathe in through your nose for five seconds, then exhale out of your mouth for five more at the same pace. Repeat.

Pursed-lip breathing:  Breathe through your nose for about two seconds. Then pucker your lips as if you’re getting ready to blow out the candles on a birthday cake, and breathe out very slowly (take two or three times as long to exhale as you did to inhale). Repeat. Recommended by the COPD Foundation, this exercise keeps the airways open longer, getting rid of more stale, trapped air in the lungs. It also improves the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide and increases endurance.

Belly (diaphragmatic) breathing: Relax your shoulders and place one hand on your chest and the other on your belly. Inhale through your nose for about two seconds. As you do so, your belly should move out. Breathe out slowly through pursed lips, gently pressing on your belly.  Repeat. Also suggested by the COPD Foundation, this will push up on the diaphragm to help get air out and strengthen the diaphragm itself.

The 4-7-8 exercise: Place the tip of your tongue just behind your upper front teeth, close your mouth and inhale quietly through your nose to a count of four. Next hold your breath for a count of seven. Finally, exhale slowly and completely through your mouth, making a “whoosh” sound, to a count of eight. Repeat three more times. The exercise is recommended by Dr. Andrew Weil, who calls it “a natural tranquilizer for the nervous system.”

Even as you read this column, you can begin: Sit up and practice a few deep breaths. Don’t hold your breath; just exaggerate your normal breathing. Within a couple breaths, you may feel more alert and relaxed!

Krista Howell of Sonora works with cardiac patients and teaches senior fitness.

Copyright © 2015 Friends and Neighbors Magazine

 

Krista Howell
By Krista Howell December 15, 2015 09:50
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