Unlock the Benefits of Deep Breathing Exercises
With the novel COVID-19 running rampant and affecting patients’ lungs, many individuals are finding themselves more concerned than ever about strengthening their respiratory system. If you are interested in lowering stress levels in your body and managing pain, you would benefit from learning more about breathing exercises.
As physical therapists, we are some of the strongest advocates you will find for the powers of physical therapy. Physical care is one of the best ways to ease pain, help with body function, and overall live a healthier life. It will strengthen the muscles associated with injury and improve post-surgical outcomes.
However, it is not the end-all-be-all when it comes to your health, and there is more that goes into physical health than what might meet the eye. Furthermore, even the best exercises we teach in physical therapy are not effective if the breath is not working properly.
Oftentimes, in order to fully improve a patient’s range of motion or flexibility, we need to calm the nervous system down through breathing. Breathing with your diaphragm tells the body to go into a state of safety. Breathing affects the parasympathetic nervous system through the vagus nerve, which runs from the base of the brain to the abdomen and is responsible for mediating the response of the nervous system and lowering the heart rate.
The sympathetic division of the nervous system is what prepares the body for physical activity. These signals are important, but it takes time to teach the brain how to reduce the alert system signal once it has been overly active. Calming the nervous system down through breath work can teach the body to move within the limits it should. In addition to making physical therapy more effective, breathing exercises have the following benefits for the body:
- Decreasing stress
Breathing exercises decrease stress because they slow your heart rate and stimulate the vagus nerve. This sends a message to your brain to relax. Another interpretation your brain can make that affects your mood is interpreting the level of oxygen as a threat. When your oxygen levels fall, your brain interprets it as stress and your cortisol levels spike. For this reason, deep breathing and allowing more oxygen to enter the blood decreases stress.
- Relieving pain
Breathing exercises can help regulate the heart and blood pressure, which helps regulate the pain response in the brain. Deep breathing can help manage chronic pain because it takes some of the pressure off of the nerves. These exercises replace this tension with conscious breathing, allowing the body to relax and the tension around the affected area to be released.
- Improving immunity
Getting enough oxygen is an essential way to help the body fight off infection and improve the immune system. When the body receives enough oxygen, water gases and toxins are removed with greater efficiency and cells are able to perform to the best of their ability. Anaerobic bacteria thrive in areas in the body without oxygen, and it is the bacteria that is responsible for infections like tetanus and gangrene. Oxygen helps build resistance to infections because it stops anaerobic organisms in their tracks.
- Stimulating the lymphatic system
The lymphatic system helps control the function of immune responses. When you practice breathing exercises, your body releases carbon dioxide. It is necessary to remove carbon dioxide from the body in order to avoid allowing the blood to rise to dangerously acidic levels. Along these same lines, when you breathe, the movements of the diaphragm help remove toxins from the body and promote better blood flow. Deep breathing allows fresh oxygen to come in and toxins and carbon dioxide to go out.
How to Increase Lung Capacity
You might think it is not possible to increase your lung capacity, but this is far from the truth. In addition to the benefits listed above, deep breathing exercises are a great way to increase lung capacity and strengthen lungs. Some of the best breathing exercises that can help accomplish this include:
- Pursed lip breathing
Put simply, pursed lip breathing works by transporting oxygen into the lungs and carbon dioxide out of the lungs. It effectively allows the airways to stay open longer and removes air that might be trapped in the lungs through slower breaths. It also provides relief from shortness of breath. This form of breathing can also prevent or relieve hypercapnia, which is a term used to refer to excessive carbon dioxide in the bloodstream.
To practice pursed lip breathing, breathe in slowly through your nose for two counts while keeping the mouth closed. Continue by taking a normal breath. Next, purse the lips as if you are about to whistle and breathe out of the mouth. You will soon find that you have a new sense of control over shortness of breath and your lungs feel stronger.
- Equal breathing
To practice “equal breathing” means to inhale for the same amount of time as you exhale. Often, we breathe in scattered patterns without even realizing it. This makes the body feel as if it is under stress and it does not fully utilize our lungs. Equal breathing, on the other hand, will effectively relax the central nervous system, improve focus and concentration, establish rhythm in your breathing, and allow you to access your full breathing capacity.
To practice equal breathing, shut your eyes and breathe as you normally would for a few counts. Next, count to four slowly while inhaling through the nose and exhale for the same amount of time (four seconds). It may sound simple, but being mindful about the breath in this way can do wonders for your physical and mental state.
- 4-7-8 breathing
Utilizing the 4-7-8 breathing method is a great way to manage anxiety, improve sleep patterns, manage emotional responses, and regulate breathing patterns. To practice 4-7-8 breathing, exhale completely through the mouth. Many patients find that making an audible “whoosh” sound when doing so enhances the effects. Next, close the mouth and inhale quietly through the nose while counting to four. Hold the breath for a count of seven, and exhale completely while making the same sound and counting to eight.
This exercise might seem a little out of the box, but it is actually quite powerful. Humming while exhaling helps increase nitric oxide in the body, which helps build and repair the nervous system, dilates the blood vessels, and enables more oxygen to be delivered throughout the body. Many patients also find humming to be quite relaxing.
To practice humming in a way that benefits your lungs, sit upright on the edge of your bed or in a stable chair. Next, place your hands around the sides of the stomach. Close your lips and place your tongue on the roof of the mouth. Breathe in through the nose while pulling air into the stomach at the location of your hands. Spread your fingers apart with your breath as much as you can. When you feel that your lungs are full, close the lips and exhale while humming. Feel free to take the liberty of making an actual humming noise at this step. Your hands should naturally lower back down. Inhale through your nose and exhale through your nose while humming again, and repeat for one minute or until desired state is achieved.
ProFysio Physical Therapy would like to thank you for being proactive about learning how to care for your body. For more tips and tricks like this, or to learn more about our physical therapy services, give us a call at (732) 812-5200 or contact us online.