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Easy Breezy: The Power of Your Breath

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By Rita La Rosa Loud, B.S.

I recently read an article in ACSM’s American College of Sports Medicine Journal that really struck home. It was about how breathing can effectively reduce stress. You see I was diagnosed in 2018 with stage 3, lymphoma, also acute anemia, and endured 32 life-saving blood transfusions.  It was an extremely worrisome and stressful time for me.  In fact, during this period my blood pressure was significantly higher than normal.  Yet, slow, controlled, breathing as well as light static stretching were what kept me calm, cool, and collected.   Furthermore, all through my weekly blood draws, breathing deeply substantially lowered my overall blood pressure.  I also practiced deep breathing techniques to help me sleep at night, and when anxiety set in without warning.  Between you and me, controlling my breath worked every single time, especially to quell any negative thoughts and emotions that surfaced.  

Before I share a common but very effective breathing technique, I would like to explore how and why our breath is so powerful.  

The Fight or Flight Syndrome 

When I was feeling anxious during my cancer tribulation, my heart throbbed and my breath accelerated, a reaction known as the fight or flight syndrome.  The sympathetic nervous system, as stated by the American Cancer Institute, controls the endocrine glands, which ready and protect the body from potential injury.  Hormones (adrenaline and cortisol) are then released into the blood stream causing escalations in blood pressure, heart rate, and breathing accompanied by increases in blood sugar, high alertness, muscle tenseness, and body perspiration.  

In opposition, the parasympathetic nervous system works when the body is at rest, and helps you to calm down, enabling it to conserve energy for future use.  Thus, managing your breathing is central to de-escalating the negative effects the body naturally experiences due to the stress response.  

The American Lung Association further explains when the diaphragm is not functioning optimally different muscles (neck, back, chest) take over the breathing process.  In this case, the oxygen levels and reserves required for exercise and physical activities are reduced.  

Hence, it behooves us to practice deep breathing daily as it: 

  • increases oxygen levels, 
  • returns the role of breathing to the diaphragm, 
  • lowers stress, and anxiety levels,
  • reduces blood pressure, and heart rate, and 
  • normalizes other vital bodily functions   

Breathing While Exercising

During the Covid 19 pandemic, many older adults turned to exercising, not only for fitness and health reasons, but for stress reduction purposes.  However, I have observed, many seniors do not execute proper breathing techniques while exercising.  Some shallow-breathe and others hold their breath, which is less effective for achieving an optimum workout.   

At Quincy College Health & Fitness Center we encourage members of all ages to breathe throughout their exercise program.  For example, when strength training on machines or using dumbbells, we cue and instruct participants to breathe out (exhale) when lifting their weights and breathe in (inhale) when lowering their weights.  Once having mastered the right breathing technique, not only is the training session more productive, but often participants express they feel less stressed and energized at the end of their workouts.  

4-Count Breathing Technique

The 4-count breathing technique is one of many common methods used in stress management.  It is the approach I used to help me to feel better, handle my stress levels, and manage my emotions during the most challenging time in my life.  Alternating the ratio of inhalation to exhalation, that is, changing your breath rhythm, may help to calm down the parasympathetic nervous system (refer to explanation above).  In just a few minutes with this brief exercise, you will immediately begin to relax, slow down your heart rate, lower your stress levels, feel better, and maybe even restore your capacity to think more clearly. Let’s face it.  Performing this breathing pattern can come in handy when dealing with any stressful situation.  I even use it while driving when someone suddenly cuts me off or is tailgating.  

It’s simple to learn.  Here’s how it is done.  First, dim the lights, or pull down the shades.  Then shut off your television, computer, and iPhone.  Basically, tune everything out.   Next, find a comfortable chair and sit with your back supported and both feet on the ground.  If you prefer, relax in a recliner or bed, head back and a pillow beneath your knees.  Now, close your eyes and quiet your mind.  Pay attention to the rhythm of your breath.  After about one minute, you are ready to start the 4-count breathing sequence. 

  1. Inhale (breathe in) via your nose, while slowly counting to four (one … two … three … four).  Feel your lungs and belly fill with air, much like a balloon.    
  2. Now, hold your breath while slowly counting to four.  Be sure to relax your jaw, neck, and shoulders while doing so.  
  3. Next, slowly exhale (breathe out) via your mouth (purse your lips and blow) to a count of four.  Feel your lungs and belly empty as the air leaves your body.  Imagine the balloon flattened.  
  4. Finally, hold your breath again for a count of four.
  5. You completed the first part of this 4-step sequence.  Just repeat it three more times and enjoy!

We can all benefit from the positive effects of simply breathing deeply, particularly when we experience stressful situations or highly anxious moments.  

Quincy College Community Health & Fitness Center

Consider our Quincy College Health and Fitness Center’s highly supervised resistance training, aerobic exercise, and stretching program.  Perhaps take advantage of a complimentary training session with a professionally certified instructor.  We are located at Presidents Place, 1250 Hancock Street directly across from the Quincy T Station.  Take the North Tower elevator down one level.  When the doors open, our fitness center is right there.  Free one and two-hour parking is available on Hancock, Coddington, and Washington Streets, and a parking garage is also available next to our building for a nominal fee.  For more details, call Rita at 617.405.9878.

Rita La Rosa Loud holds a B.S. in Exercise Physiology with additional education in Sports Medicine and Athletic Training. She is NASM Certified and has been actively involved in the fitness industry for over 35 years. She is also an author and writes fitness-related articles for various publications. Currently, she is a fitness researcher and directs the COVID compliant, Community Health & Fitness Center at Quincy College. She can be reached at 617.405.5978 and is available for speaking engagements.