This article on aerobic breathing was originally
written by Dennis Lewis for a Guest Forum on DayBreak Lavender Farm.
My main work involves what is called "natural breathing," which depends in large
part in releasing the unnecessary tensions of the body and mind so that we can
breathe in the most spontaneous, balanced, and efficient way in any situation.
Today I want to give you some tips on how to breathe when you are doing aerobic
exercise--that is, when you are working out by walking, running, jogging, bicycling, dancing, and so on. And I want
to explain the scientific reasons for these aerobic breathing tips.
Many people when they do aerobic exercise either breathe through their mouths
the entire time or do so when they start getting out of breath. This is not a
good idea. Whether you are doing aerobic exercises or not, it is best, if
possible, to inhale and exhale through your nose. Or, if you need to have a
longer exhalation than is possible through your nose, you can exhale through
pursed lips (as though you were blowing gently on something).
Why is it so important to inhale through our nose? There are several reasons for
this. When we inhale through our nose, the hairs that line our nostrils filter
out particles of dust and dirt that can be injurious to our lungs. If too many
particles accumulate on the membranes of the nose, we automatically secret mucus
to trap them or sneeze to expel them. The mucous membranes of our septum, which
divides the nose into two cavities, further prepare the air for our lungs by
warming and humidifying it. Over time, this filtering and humidification process
helps protect our lungs from the damage that would otherwise occur.
Another very important reason for breathing through the nose--one that very few
people are aware of--has to do with maintaining the correct balance of oxygen
and carbon dioxide in our blood. When we breathe through our mouth we usually
inhale and exhale air quickly in large volumes. This often leads to a kind of
hyperventilation (breathing excessively fast for the actual conditions in which
we find ourselves). It is important to recognize that it is the amount of carbon
dioxide in our blood that generally regulates our breathing. Research has shown
that if we release carbon dioxide too quickly, the arteries and vessels carrying
blood to our cells constrict and the oxygen in our blood is unable to reach the
cells in sufficient quantity. This includes the carotid arteries which carry
blood (and oxygen) to the brain. The lack of sufficient oxygen going to the
cells of the brain can turn on our sympathetic nervous system, our "fight or
flight" response, and make us tense, anxious, irritable, and depressed. There
are some researchers who believe that mouth breathing and the associated
hyperventilation that it brings about can result in asthma, high blood pressure,
heart disease, and many other medical problems. Some people, for instance, get
exercise-induced asthma, a temporary condition in which one begins gasping for
air. (I discuss these issues in more depth in my books
The Tao of Natural
Breathing, and Free Your
Breath, Free Your Life.
When you work out aerobically, of course, the whole point is to find ways to get
more health benefits from your workout. Here are some questions you might ask
yourself. Would you like to burn more fat during your workout? Would you like to
reduce exercise-related fatigue and injury? Would you like to increase your
endurance and stamina? Would you like your aerobic workout to help improve your
If your answer is "yes" to any or all of these questions, and it no doubt is,
then there is one simple thing you can do: don't let yourself become
"breathless" at any point during your workout. When you become breathless, you
undermine your breathing coordination, burn sugar instead of fat for fuel,
become tight and tense (which can promote injury), and, in general, undermine
your endurance and stamina.
The simplest way to know whether you are exercising too intensely and becoming
breathless is to try to speak several sentences out loud while you're working
out. If you can't do it without gasping for breath, then your workout is no
longer "aerobic"--it is, or is about to become, "anaerobic," which means that it
is proceeding without oxygen and you are no longer burning fat for fuel. Another
way to look at what has happened is that you are hyperventilating, which means
that you won't get oxygen where it needed in your brain and body and you will
feel as though you are out of breath, even though you may have plenty of oxygen
in your blood.
A simple way to ensure that you are working out at a level that will not make
you breathless is to inhale and exhale only through your nose. If you try this
you will quickly discover, especially at the beginning, that you will have to
work at a slower or less-intense rate during your workout. Gradually, however,
your breathing coordination and blood chemistry will improve and you will be
able to do more and progress more rapidly, eventually going well beyond your
previous limits. You can also, if you wish, breathe out slowly through pursed
lips, as I already mentioned.
Another way is to use your pulse rate as a guide. In his book The Portable
Personal Trainer, Eric Harr suggests that we subtract our age from 180 to
determine the upper limit of our pulse rate during exercise. The key is to stay
below this number. He also suggests using a "heart-rate monitor" to ensure that
we don't go above this number. He does point out, however, that because of
individual differences this number may not be accurate. So you will need to
fine-tune your aerobic routine to take into account your own situation.
For myself, I do only as much exercise as I can do while breathing through my
nose, take my pulse frequently, and check occasionally to be sure that I can
speak a few sentences while working out. At the beginning, breathing only
through my nose seemed to slow me down quite a bit, but after only a few weeks I
found that I could progress much more rapidly than I was able to when I allowed
myself to become breathless during the workout. When you become breathless, you
are in the same situation, although only temporarily, as someone with emphysema.
In this situation, the diaphragm hardly moves at all and one tries to breathe by
raising one's shoulders (which takes weight off the top of the lungs and
stimulates shallow breathing) and using one's chest muscles, which is a very
inefficient way to breathe, since the diaphragm is the main breathing muscle.
By the way, if you would like to read an interesting, informative article on
breathing for athletes and non-athletes alike, please read
the article by Perry Louis Fields, a
member of the U.S. Track and Field Team and a member of the USATF (United State
Track and Field Federation).