Breathe better, live better: the benefits of breathwork
You've been breathing your whole life. So you've probably got it worked out, right?
That's what I thought, too.
It wasn’t until I started to study breathwork that I finally felt like I was breathing RIGHT. And it’s opened me up to a whole new element of total well-being, which is exactly what we try to do for you on Centr every day.
That is why Luke Zocchi and I made breathwork an essential part of the warm-ups and cool-downs in our new workout program Centr Circuit: Elevate.
Believe it or not, breathing well isn’t just for meditation and yoga classes, it’s important for all areas of your life. I’ve used this new program as an opportunity to share what I’ve learned about breathwork, and my tips to help you breathe better.
Why breathing matters
We all know breathing is important, but the catch is that the way you breathe makes a HUGE difference for your health.
Here are some reasons to take breathing well seriously:
- The better your breathing, the more oxygen your body gets. That’s important because oxygen = energy for your body and your mind.
- Healthy breathing means healthy lungs, and healthy lungs are better at filtering harmful particles out of the air and keeping your blood PH levels balanced.
- Just like bone density, lung capacity begins to decline in our 30s. By age 50, it could be half of what it once was. Breathing well is so important for maintaining strong lungs as you get older so that you can continue living an active life.
- The way you breathe influences the way you feel. Your attention, focus, and stress levels can all be improved through breathwork.
What does good breathing look like?
You know how sometimes your workout form can get a little sloppy when you get a bit too comfortable and bad habits start creeping in? Well, bad habits can impact your breathing, too.
So what does good breathing look like?
The diaphragm moves: This boomerang-shaped muscle sits at the bottom of your lungs. When we breathe properly, the diaphragm shifts down as we inhale, making space for the lungs to expand and draw in more oxygen. This is the way our body was made to breathe, but over time things like stress and poor posture can lead us to take shallow breaths that don’t engage the diaphragm.
The full 360: When you use your diaphragm to inhale, the entire 360 degrees of your torso should expand, causing movement through the front, back, and sides of your rib cage. This means even more room for your lungs.
Use your nose: We should all be aiming to breathe through our noses as much as possible. Your nose acts like a filter (keeping out all those nasties like dust and bacteria) and warms the air you breathe in, which makes it easier for your lungs to absorb the oxygen. On the other hand, mouth breathing activates your upper chest and neck muscles, which can lead to stiffness, headaches, and stress.
Using your breath will help you to smash the tough workouts in our new workout program Centr Circuit: Elevate, then kick-start your recovery during the cool-down.
How to breathe for exercise performance
Why it matters: If you’ve worked out with me on Centr, you know I’m always on your case about remembering to breathe. The more oxygen you can take in, the more energy, strength, and motivation you’re going to have during the workout.
Shallow breathing drains your energy. But as your breathing gets deeper and more efficient, it can seriously boost your endurance. There’s a reason Dan makes breathwork a priority when he’s training for a marathon.
A healthy and consistent breathing pattern will also help to regulate your body temperature, so you can keep smashing your workout without overheating.
How to breathe for exercise performance: First things first – keep the flow going. I often see people holding their breath when the workout starts to get tough. Most of the time, they don’t even realize they're doing it.
For cardio workouts, the most effective way to breathe is in through your nose and out through your mouth. You’ll get all the benefits of nose breathing we talked about above, but using the mouth to exhale is the fastest way to get rid of the carbon dioxide from your body to make room for more energy-boosting oxygen.
If you’re lifting weights, time your breathing so that you’re exhaling during the concentric part of an exercise (the part where your muscles contract) and inhaling during the eccentric part (the part where your muscles lengthen). For example, if you’re doing a bicep curl you’ll want to breathe out when you lift the weight up, and in when you lower it down.
How to breathe for optimized recovery
Why it matters: There’s a reason people tell you to take a deep breath when you’re stressed out. Breathing well fires up your parasympathetic nervous system. This network of nerves is all about resting and digesting. To keep making progress in your training, it’s exactly what you want to activate post-workout, so your body can start the recovery process.
As well as slowing your heart rate and promoting relaxation, the parasympathetic nervous system plays a part in tissue repair and regulating hormones, so factor that in for muscle growth!
While breathing with good form activates the parasympathetic nervous system, short, shallow breathing activates the sympathetic nervous system – skyrocketing our heart rate and stress levels and sending us into “fight or flight” mode.
Did you know that this can also be activated by reading an email or sending a text message? It turns out a lot of us are unintentionally holding our breath when we’re glued to our screens – it’s called email apnea, and you can probably guess that it’s not great for your stress load at work.
How to breathe for recovery: For recovery, we want breathing that is long, slow, and deep. Focus on feeling that diaphragm drop down during the inhale and letting your torso and belly expand. When it’s time to exhale, let everything contract in the opposite direction.
Another great technique for recovery and stress relief is to focus on breathing OUT. Long and slow exhales will help to activate the parasympathetic nervous system and bring you back to calm. Try to make your exhale slightly longer than your inhale.
If you’re looking for a little guidance, this breathing meditation will help you find calm in 3 minutes.
4 easy ways to get better at breathing
Could your breathing form use some work? Let’s look at some easy, practical ways you can build breathwork into your day.
1. Observe your breath
The first thing you need to do is just stop and pay attention to how you breathe. Signs you might not be breathing well include:
Mainly breathing through your mouth, instead of your nose.
Your shoulders move around a lot (this points to shallow breathing).
You run out of breath easily when talking.
You sometimes notice you’re holding your breath while you work on the computer.
Don’t beat yourself up if you notice your breathing form could use some work – the fact that you’re aware of it is a great first step.
2. Take your nose out for a walk
Take a walk for 10-15 minutes and aim to breathe through your nose the whole time. I was surprised at how difficult this is! But the more nasal breathing you build up to, the more your body will do it without thinking about it.
Important: If you struggle to breathe through your nose, even when you focus on it, consult your doctor.
3. Put some muscle into it
Like any muscle, your diaphragm can weaken if it’s not exercised properly. Visualize this muscle moving up and down (and your rib cage expanding and contracting), as you deeply inhale and exhale. While it might feel strange at first if you’re not used to it, this is what quality breathing feels like.
Try diaphragmatic breathing when you notice you’re taking shallow breaths, or to start your day – it can be really invigorating.
4. Get moving
Think about your diaphragm sitting there under your lungs. If you sit and slouch for a long time, it’s going to compress, right? And that leads to shallow chest breathing.
So the more movement you can get into your day, the better it will be for your breathing overall.
Want more well-being advice from the experts?
Pocket rocket Alexz Parvi’s HILIT circuits will make you sweat and shake to shape, define and tone. Certified personal trainer and founder of cult fitness studio Hustl in Australia’s Byron Bay and Gold Coast, she’s also a certified teacher of barre, and mat and reformer Pilates.
Sign up to unlock your full potential
All your tools in one place
Expert-training to fuel your fitness, nutrition and mindfulness.
Limitless ways to fuel your mind & body
Access to over 3,000 workouts, recipes, and meditations – all tailored to your goals.
Tech that keeps you moving
Download Centr on all your devices to level up and track your results live.