Breathing is something we all do up to 29,000 times a day without much thought. That said, there’s breathing for survival and there’s breathing for optimal health — and chances are, if you’re like most humans, you could do a better job of the latter.

Deep and Slow
Want to know what an effective breather looks like? Watch a baby.

Healthy babies inhale slowly through the nose, letting their bellies rise with each breath. The belly rises because babies naturally engage the diaphragm when breathing. The diaphragm pulls downward with each inhalation, making room for the lungs to fully expand with oxygen.

The opposite is true with exhalation: The belly falls as the diaphragm pushes upward to force carbon dioxide (plus a little oxygen) out of the lungs.

We all begin life as belly breathers, but for various reasons many adults lose the ability to breathe deeply. Some of us have been conditioned to suck in our bellies, never letting them fully expand. Others simply fall out of practice.

And then, there’s stress, which makes us more likely to take shallow breaths into the chest. This breathing pattern, which evolved to protect us in the “fight or flight” state, has become much more common in modern society and does us no favors health-wise.

But according to Julie Geeting, a licensed professional counselor and certified well-being coach at Palm Health in St. Louis, there’s good news. She says proper breathing techniques “can easily be learned with coaching and practice” and can improve your health over time.

Diaphragmatic breathing naturally helps slow the rate of respiration, setting off a physiological chain reaction that improves physical and mental health. In simple terms, breathing slowly stimulates a part of the nervous system called the vagus nerve, which slows the heart rate and makes it more regular.

These changes in heart rate can trigger other positive adaptations.

“We often believe that it’s always the brain signaling the rest of the body with ‘commands,’” said Geeting, who teaches a deep breathing technique called cardiac coherence. “Research has shown, however, that the heart sends far more signals to the brain than the brain sends to the heart.”

Indeed, studies suggest that breathing at a rate of four to 10 breaths per minute can improve sleep, chronic anxiety, blood pressure, stress hormone levels, and heart rate variability (indicating greater tolerance for stress) — possibly due to the interaction between the breath, the vagus nerve, the heart, and the brain.

Be Nosey
Ready to boost your belly breathing? Try breathing more through your nose. Nasal breathing helps regulate your respiratory rate, but it has other advantages over the mouth.

The paranasal sinuses release a gas called nitric oxide, which travels with oxygen into the lungs. In addition to fighting off germs, nitric oxide helps regulate the blood pressure and allows oxygen to move through the body more efficiently.

The benefits of nasal breathing extend beyond the inhale. Compared to the mouth, the smaller diameter of the nostrils allows less oxygen to escape with each exhale and increases the amount of oxygen the body absorbs (by up to 18 percent, per some estimates).

Screen Apnea
Do you spend lots of time looking at screens? Chances are you’re holding your breath without realizing it.

“Screen apnea” — a term coined by author and researcher Linda Stone in 2008 — refers to the subconscious tendency to hold one’s breath or take shallow breaths while interacting with technology. And, by Stone’s estimate, up to 80 percent of us do it.

Irregular breathing triggers a sympathetic (“fight or flight”) state in the body, which is helpful for short-term stress but can leave you more susceptible to anxiety, depression, insomnia, and brain fog over time. Considering that the average adult accumulates 11 hours of screen time per day, you could be spending quite a bit of time in survival mode.

Which brings us back to the idea of breathing for health rather than just for survival. Whether you’re working on your computer or just experiencing some stress, a popular method called the 365 method can help: At least three times a day, breathe through the nose at a rate of six breaths per minute (five seconds in, five seconds out) for five minutes. Practicing this technique every day can make you a better breather and may even improve your health.

Breathing for Performance
Breathing for health is great, but let’s say you’re more interested in breathing for performance. Here are some tips:

A young woman catching her breath after a running session.

Breathe Deeply
Deep (diaphragmatic) breathing during exercise helps with form, boosts oxygen delivery to the muscles, and facilitates the removal of waste gases like carbon dioxide — but deep breathing can also be beneficial before and even after exercise.

Breathing deeply has a calming effect that can increase focus and decrease performance anxiety before hard workouts or competition. Diaphragmatic breathing also promotes recovery by improving sleep and possibly by reducing exercise-induced cellular damage.

In one small study, athletes who practiced belly breathing for one hour after a hard workout saw increased antioxidant activity compared to those who only rested.

Use Your Nose
“With time and practice, nasal breathing actually allows the person to build nitric oxide capacity,” said Natali Kummer, head trainer at CrossFit Valley Park in Valley Park, Missouri. And, as we learned earlier, increased nitric oxide means more oxygen available in our lungs and muscles.

Kummer admits that learning to breathe through the nose during exercise can be challenging at first. Slowing your pace until you adjust to this new way of breathing can help.

Don’t Hold Your Breath
Breath holding is one of the most common mistakes that Kummer observes on the gym floor. As she points out, holding your breath only makes exercise more difficult. Training yourself to take deep, steady breaths during exercise makes it easier to tolerate the short-term physiological stresses that come with hard workouts. Over time, this will only make you stronger.

Author: Kimberly Yawitz is a regular contributor to Terrain Magazine.