Just Breathe


Though most adults under ordinary circumstances take 12 and 20 breaths per minute, we rarely notice those oxygen-carbon dioxide exchanges until they begin to fail. It is when our bodies are in motion and our systems demand heightened oxygen flow that we begin to adequately appreciate the essential exchange of gases that make our living possible. Respiratory dysfunction shows up clearly and acutely when we challenge ourselves physically. The heart pumps faster, breathing quickens, vessels dilate, nostrils widen…and yet, despite all bodily accommodations, we sometimes feel as if there isn’t enough air out there to keep us going. 

Whenever someone new to exercise complains of feeling oxygen-starved, cardiopulmonary conditioning is my first suspect. Starting out on a fitness plan, it is easy to will our bodies to move at a pace that outstrips the fitness level of our hearts. Romantic notions aside, the heart is a muscle that needs to be conditioned to function efficiently. If the heart is not as strong as it could be, the body’s ability to take in and process oxygen is diminished. Muscles and tissues that do not get the oxygen they require will not continue to perform; no matter how much mental fortitude we apply to the situation.

If your heart muscle needs time to catch up with your workout, there are several strategies you may employ. 

One is to exercise with your ears…listen to your breathing when you work out. If your breath sounds labored, slow down. Practice breathing deeply and less rapidly while you move at a slower pace to give your heart a chance to recover before challenging it again. The conditioning of your heart will improve as you continue to move and soon you will master exercising and breathing at the same time. Using a heart rate monitor is a higher tech version of this approach. Monitoring your heart rate can alert you that it is time to dial down the intensity for a bit.

Another strategy is pure ergonomics. Check your posture. If you are bent forward or your shoulders are slouched inward, you are collapsing the space that should be available for your lungs to expand with each breath. If oxygen is still elusive, try breathing through your nose and mouth. Some advocate shutting down one or the other of these orifices on your exhalation or inhalation. But if you are struggling to get air in, dampening the system is an inferior option.

Relaxing is another way to outdistance breathing issues. Often while exercising we tense muscles that have nothing to do with the work we are undertaking. This non-essential muscle contraction places additional oxygen demands on our already taxed systems and can interfere with full and effective breathing. So get your shoulders out of your ears, loosen those fists, focus your attention on the sensation of breathing and the tension will drain away. Chanting or singing can also free your mind and body from stress as well as better syncopate your breathing. 

When I am interval training (alternating high and low intensity running to improve cardio health and endurance), I often feel out of breath during the high intensity bursts of speed. Part of this feeling comes from ramping up my heart rate. But part of it comes from not exhaling fully when my running stride demands a faster, shallower respiration. If you leave residual carbon dioxide in your lungs, it can reduce the efficiency of oxygen delivery. If excessive CO2 cramps your style, take some extra time with your exhalation and try to push out every molecule of air to open up space for the next oxygen-rich inhalation.

Tried it all and still feeling short of breath? Cadence breathing may be your answer. Synchronizing your strides with your inhalations and exhalations is called cadence breathing. The most common cadence used is a 2-2 rhythm, or two footfalls per inhale and two footfalls per exhale. The 2-2 rhythm results in always inhaling on the same foot, which some experts believe can lead to side stitches. If this is a problem for you, try rhythms that force a breath-foot change-up such as the 3-2 or 4-3. You can also experiment with which phase of your footfall to begin to take or release your breath for optimal performance. Cadence breathing is like adjusting the timing on your car. Sometimes you have to play with the setting to get it just right.

Breathing issues may also be warning signs that bodily systems are quietly going off track. Receiving early alerts to potential system failures is a great benefit of working out. Detecting and addressing nascent health issues can add many healthy years to a lifespan. 

Feeling winded may also be caused by asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) or other pulmonary system infiltrations. As a person with asthma, let me tell you that these conditions are sneaky. Your lung capacity can shrink so slowly that you never notice the change. You could go to your doctor to address seasonal allergies and end up being told that your lungs are functioning at less than 15 percent of capacity while you never had a clue. Pulmonary function testing is less taxing than blowing up birthday party balloons. So, if you are feeling out of breath, why not check with your doctor to find out if there is an inflammation within to dispel.

Whether you are deadly serious competitive cyclist or mahjong player, breathing is essential to your game. Start where you are to challenge your heart and fill your lungs to see the benefits it will bring. Even sitting still and practicing slow, deep yoga-style breathing for an hour a day can make you more fit and better able to maintain healthy blood oxygen levels. So there are no excuses. You’re going to breathe anyway, why not use your respirations to grow stronger?


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