When it comes to living a healthy lifestyle, there are a few items most people keep on their to-do list, from working out more to ditching those sugary snacks you’ve been overly-reliant on. However, there’s one important factor that all-too-often goes neglected in the pursuit of better health: breathing.
After all, the body is going to breathe whether or not you tell it to, so why should you exert energy on it?
Well, believe it or not, there is such a thing as a “right” and “wrong” way to breathe—and odds are that you’re doing more of the latter. Herein, we’ve rounded up some of the most common breathing problems, along with expert-approved remedies to get your breathing back on track.
You’re only breathing through your mouth in the winter.
When wintertime rolls around, breathing solely through your nose is the way to go. According to Mark Courtney, a respiratory therapist with the American Lung Association, the nostrils are better able to filter and warm the air, which “helps, especially in a very dry or cold environment.”
You’re overthinking it.
There are enough things on your plate as it is, so there’s no need to add “breathing properly” to your list of things to worry about. Even if you don’t make a conscious effort to breathe all the time, your autonomic nervous system—the part of the nervous system that controls your unconscious movements—will take care of it for you.
“There are receptors in our body that constantly monitor the blood’s oxygen and pH levels,” says Courtney. “It automatically sends signals to our brain to tell us how often and how deep to breathe.”
You don’t start the day with a few minutes of proper breathing.
Though you shouldn’t be focusing on your breathing 24/7, it’s still important to take some time every now and again to pay attention to your breaths—and the best time to do this is first thing in the morning. As Milana Perepyolkina, bestselling author of Gypsy Energy Secrets, explains: “When we wake up, we immediately jump into a tension mode and start breathing fast and from the top of our lungs. Even five minutes of breathing meditation allows us to reset our mental batteries.”
If you want to start practicing some morning breathing meditation, then Perepyolkina recommends practicing a few minutes of slow, deep belly breathing (more on that in the next slide) with your eyes still closed before you even get out of bed.
You’re “belly breathing.”
“Over half of the new students who come to my yoga class are shallow breathers when they first arrive, sucking their gut in when they inhale,” explains Kim McIntyre, a yoga teacher and CEO of Joyful Being Transformations. “This only allows air to flow into the upper part of the chest and mimics the type of breathing we do when we feel stressed and anxious.”
Not sure whether you’re breathing into your chest or your stomach? To find out, simply place a hand on your stomach while you breathe. If you find that your belly button sinks in when you take a breath, then you’re breathing with your chest (and doing it wrong); if your stomach expands when you breathe, then you’re using your stomach (and doing it right). “When breathing is deep, the belly naturally expands outward as we inhale, then inward as we exhale,” says McIntyre.
Your “deep breaths” are too deep.
According to one study published in the journal Psychophysiology, it’s the deep breaths that you take when you meditate—not the mantras you chant—that make the practice so mentally and emotionally soothing. However, you can only reap the benefits of meditation if you take deep breaths properly—and if you don’t, you risk overwhelming your system and stressing your heart out.
So, what’s the secret when it comes to deep breathing? Evidently, just following a 1:2 ratio of inhale time to exhale time should do the trick and keep your heart rate steady.
You’re a mouth-breather.
Not only is mouth breathing annoying, but it can also have harmful side effects everywhere from your mouth to your mind, as taking in breath through the mouth deprives the body of the blood flow-regulating and immunity-boosting nitric oxide that the nasal passages provide. As dentist Steven Lin explained: “In adults, mouth breathing… can progress to obstructive sleep apnea, a condition linked to heart failure, high blood pressure, and Alzheimer’s disease. In humans, [mouth breathing] is really just a survival mechanism, to be used when the nasal breathing is impossible.”
You’re holding your breath when you run.
“Runners tend to focus on form first and breathing second, if at all,” says Joe LoCascio, a performance coach and running expert. But though runners don’t take their breathing all that seriously, holding your breath while you run can actually slow you down and impede your progress, seeing as “the more oxygen you have, the better you’ll perform.”
“Improving your physiology and learning how to breathe while running is especially important for athletes who want to boost their performance, but it’s also critical for entry-level runners who just want to make it around the block without feeling gassed,” says LoCascio.
You’re sucking in your gut.
“In an effort to look skinny we often, even unconsciously, suck in our guts regularly,” explains Caleb Backe, a personal trainer and health and wellness expert for cruelty-free company Maple Holistics. “When we do this, we are not allowing our body to breathe to its full capacity as we limit our diaphragm’s range of motion. This means that weak exhalation actually doesn’t release all the carbon dioxide from our lungs.”
You’re trying to breathe while hunched over a keyboard all day.
“Poor posture affects good breathing techniques,” explains Elizabeth Kovar, MA, a health and fitness expert with the American Council on Exercise. “Good posture is necessary for breath management, volume, and resonance. Poor posture, especially when seated, compresses the thoracic region and does not allow the diaphragm to open fully when breathing.”
You’re not breathing deeply enough.
“Many people do not breathe deeply enough,” explains Dr. Chirag Shah, M.D., a board-certified emergency medicine physician and a medical reviewer for PollMed. “Proper breathing involves pulling air all the way into the depths of your lungs and pushing your diaphragm down in the process. This improves the amount of blood that returns to your chest and helps detoxify the body.”
You’re relying on mouth breathing while you exercise.
No matter how hard you push yourself at the gym or in a workout class, you’re only going to be able to get so far if you aren’t breathing properly. “If we’re pushing ourselves, we can feel like we aren’t getting enough oxygen and so we revert to mouth breathing,” explains breathing expert Tara Clancy, M.A. “In doing this, we are taking in too much oxygen, which throws off the ratio of oxygen and carbon dioxide in our blood and sets us up for a host of problems, including nasal congestion.”
So, what’s the right way to breathe when it comes time to work out? According to Clancy, you should “push yourself only so hard as to be able to continue to breathe through your nose” to avoid any harmful mouth breathing.
You’re practicing “belly breathing” while pregnant.
Though belly breathing is the expert-approved breathing method for most people, this type of inhalation and exhalation can be harmful if you have a baby on board. As prenatal and postpartum fitness expert Helene Byrne explained: “Belly breathing is one of the primary causes of diastasis recti, or abdominal separation—a fairly common complication of pregnancy where the midline tissue thins and over-widens. It can aggravate back pain and pelvic instability and lead to complications such as an umbilical hernia.”
If you are pregnant, then Byrne recommends practicing diaphragmatic breathing, in which “the diaphragm lowers a few inches while the rib cage expands during inhalation” for proper breathing that won’t harm you or the baby.
You’re breathing too much.
While breathing is essential if you want to stay alive, there is such a thing as breathing too much—and it’s not exactly easy to tell whether you’re doing it. “It doesn’t always look like hyperventilation, but you’re in this state where you’re blowing off too much carbon dioxide and sucking in too much oxygen, and you’re not even realizing it,” Patricia Ladis, a physiotherapist and certified behavioral breathing expert, explained to Well & Good.
If you think that you’re breathing too much and too often, then the expert suggests working on taking quiet breaths through your nose for a few minutes. If that seems to help, then you can safely self-diagnose yourself as an over-breather and work on taking fewer deep breaths and more calm ones.
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