Breathing Exercises: Purpose, Benefits, Types

Breathing Exercises: Purpose, Benefits, Types

Breathing exercises are a form of exercise for your lungs. They improve lung function and efficiency, help manage certain health conditions, and relieve stress and anxiety. Breathing exercises can be useful for people with healthy lungs as well as those with impaired lung function.

Many healthcare providers recommend breathing exercises as part of a treatment plan for conditions like chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), asthma, and high blood pressure. Breathing exercises can also reduce symptoms of mental health conditions like anxiety, panic disorder, or depression.

Breathing exercises serve many purposes. For example, they can calm nerves and anxiety and improve lung capacity and efficiency for people with chronic (long-term) lung conditions. When practiced regularly, breathing exercises can help rid your lungs of stale air. They increase oxygen levels and support your diaphragm in its job (helping you breathe). Your diaphragm is a dome-shaped organ and the most important breathing muscle.

Breathing exercises are especially important for people with breathing difficulties. As time passes, stale air may build up in your lungs. This allows less room for your diaphragm to contract and take in fresh oxygen. As a result, your body starts to use other muscles like your neck, back, and chest for breathing. This means that you have less oxygen. You also expend a lot of energy that you need for daily activities, including exercise.

Breathing exercises can improve lung efficiency, which can aid athletic performance. They can also lower blood pressure and promote relaxation by stimulating the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) and deactivating the sympathetic nervous system (SNS). The PNS allows you to rest and relax, while the SNS enables the “fight or flight” response.

Breathing exercises offer numerous benefits when used appropriately and in the right situations. Many healthcare providers recommend breathing programs as part of a treatment plan for everything from COPD, hypertension (high blood pressure), and COVID recovery to asthma, anxiety, and stress reduction.

Reduce Asthma Symptoms

Asthma is a chronic lung condition that affects the airways of one in 13 people in the United States. People with asthma often experience breathing difficulties when they exercise, come in contact with pollen, have a cold or flu virus, or spend time in cold air. While several medications can help treat asthma, it’s a life-long condition without a cure.

Research, though limited, has shown that breathing exercises may help manage asthma symptoms. One study found that in people with mild to moderate asthma, breathing exercises can help with hyperventilation symptoms. These exercises also may improve lung function and quality of life.

Lower Blood Pressure

Hypertension (high blood pressure) increases the risk of conditions like heart disease, stroke, and kidney failure. Slow breathing—taking fewer than 10 breaths per minute alongside slow, rhythmic exhales—can have a relaxing effect, increase endorphins, lower adrenaline, and even reduce blood acidity. It can also lower blood pressure.

One review of 17 studies found that slow or controlled breathing may be an effective way to manage hypertension—especially in people who have pre-hypertension or have few cardiac risk factors. It may even be a valuable alternative for people who are younger and reluctant to take medication.

Decrease Anxiety and Stress

Stress and anxiety are common issues that affect countless people daily. Anxiety disorders affect more than 30% of adults at some point in their lives.

Breathing exercises can be an effective way to manage conditions like generalized anxiety disorder when used in combination with therapy and other interventions. These exercises can improve mood, reduce stress, and decrease heart and respiratory rates. In some cases, they might be more effective than mindfulness.

Breathing exercises can lower cortisol levels, the stress hormone. In one small study, people were taught how to do diaphragmatic breathing over eight weeks and had significantly lower cortisol levels and significantly higher attention rates.

Reduce Pain

Multiple reviews and many studies demonstrate that intentional breathing can cause acute (short-term) and chronic pain. For example, one review of seven studies found that slow deep breathing (SDB) reduced acute post-operative pain and acute labor pain. Another review of 13 studies found that breathing exercises reduced chronic low back pain. Breathing exercises have also been shown to reduce labor duration.

Here are some possible reasons that breathing exercises reduce pain:

  • They stimulate endogenous opioids, chemical compounds that help regulate things like pain and mood.
  • They promote relaxation and reduce symptoms of anxiety, anger, depression, and confusion.
  • Intentional breathing strengthens breathing muscles like the diaphragm, pelvic floor, and deep abdominal muscles. This affects posture, which can reduce pain (e.g., chronic low back pain).

This research suggests the value of intentional breathing and breathing through the pain rather than taking short, shallow breaths or holding your breath, which often feels more instinctual.

Manage COPD Breathing Difficulties

COPD is a group of chronic, progressive lung diseases that limit airflow to the lungs. People with COPD are often taught breathing exercises such as diaphragmatic breathing in pulmonary rehabilitation programs. Their healthcare providers might also advise them to use various breathing techniques to improve lung efficiency and function and increase oxygen levels.

One review found that people with COPD who use diaphragmatic breathing, pursed lip breathing, and exercise may experience improved breathing and quality of life. Another study found that breathing exercises can improve pulmonary function, exercise endurance, and respiratory muscle strength. It can also reduce feelings of dyspnea (shortness of breath).

There are many different breathing exercises, depending on your goals and objectives. Some people use breathing exercises to reduce anxiety while others use them to improve lung capacity and function. Here are some of the more common breathing exercises.

Box Breathing

Sometimes referred to as square breathing or tactical breathing, box breathing was initially created by the United States military. They often use this type of breathing to manage stress and improve performance.

How to do it:

  • Inhale through your nose for four counts
  • Hold your breath for four counts
  • Exhale through your mouth for four counts
  • Hold your breath for four counts
  • Repeat this cycle for several minutes

Deep Breathing

Deep breathing, sometimes called diaphragmatic breathing or belly breathing, is a mind-body approach for reducing symptoms of stress, anxiety, and depression. It’s also used for managing asthma, COPD, blood pressure, and more.

How to do it:

  • Place one hand on your belly and the other hand below your rib cage (to help you feel the correct movement patterns)
  • Inhale slowly through your nose and expand your diaphragm (belly moves outward, chest remains relatively still)
  • Exhale through your mouth and contract (tighten) your diaphragm (belly moves toward your spine, but don’t suck it in)
  • Continue for as long as needed to feel calmer

One helpful note when learning how to do this type of breathing is to imitate smelling delicious food (inhale through your nose) and blowing on it to cool it down (exhale through your mouth).

There are multiple variations of deep breathing, including cyclic sighing and humming breathing.

Cyclic sighing is a controlled breathing exercise that focuses on long exhales (“sighing”) to activate your parasympathetic nervous system. This will, in turn, slow down your heart rate and produce a calming effect. It can also reduce symptoms of anxiety and decrease your breathing rate in as little as five minutes.

Humming breathing, also known as bumblebee breath and Bhramari Pranayama, is a slow-paced breathing exercise that affects multiple systems in your body. It can promote sleep and relieve stress and anger. Like deep breathing and cyclic sighing, inhale through your nose. For the exhalation, breathe out with a closed mouth (lips slightly loose) and make a “hmm” sound (humming or buzzing sound). Repeat for about five minutes.

4-7-8 Breathing

Developed by Andrew Weil, MD, 4-7-8 breathing is designed to calm your nervous system.

How to do it:

  • Inhale through your nose for four counts
  • Hold your breath for seven counts
  • Exhale through your mouth for eight counts while making a whooshing sound
  • Repeat this cycle up to four times

Pursed Lip Breathing

Pursed lip breathing helps you slow your breathing, relieve shortness of breath, decrease breathing effort, and improve gas exchange. This breathing technique is particularly useful if you have lung conditions like COPD or emphysema, a type of COPD characterized by damage to the lungs’ air sacs (alveoli).

How to do it:

  • Inhale slowly through your nose
  • Exhale slowly through pursed lips
  • Repeat for 3-5 breaths (more repetitions can negatively affect your respiratory system)

Resonance Breathing

People might use resonance breathing to reduce stress, lower blood pressure, and improve mood. Healthcare providers also use resonance breathing to teach people how to recognize their heart rate variability (HRV) or to control certain bodily responses affected by breathing.

How to do it:

  • Using belly breathing, inhale through your nose and exhale through your mouth
  • Breathe purposefully at a slow rate of about 4.5-7 breaths per minute
  • Continue for several minutes

Alternate Nostril Breathing

This breathing technique is often used in yoga. Possible benefits include improved attention and decreased blood pressure.

How to do it:

  • Close your right nostril with your right thumb
  • Inhale through your left nostril
  • Close your left nostril with your right pointer finger
  • Remove your thumb from your right nostril and exhale through it
  • Inhale through your right nostril
  • Close your right nostril with your right thumb
  • Remove your pointer finger from your left nostril and exhale through it
  • Repeat this cycle for several minutes

Although breathing exercises appear relatively simple, they might be more challenging than expected—especially for people with chronic lung conditions or those not accustomed to working their lungs. You may need to take some time and go slow, giving your lungs time to adjust to their new “workout.”

If you want to use breathing exercises to reduce anxiety, decompress, or promote relaxation, don’t try them for the first time when your stress or anxiety is particularly high. Instead, plan to practice them when you have some downtime and can focus on the techniques.

Your healthcare provider or therapist can advise when and how often you do them. One study found that people who did 10 minutes of deep breathing twice daily for nine months experienced less stress than those who did not. Another study found that breathing exercises improved lung function, reduced back pain, and improved quality of life when practiced 2-3 times per week for 4-8 weeks.

Dyspnea (shortness of breath) is a common symptom that affects millions of people. Sometimes the root cause is anxiety or stress, but it can also be a sign of a serious health condition. For example, dyspnea can be a symptom of a pulmonary embolism (blood clot in the lungs), heart attack, anaphylaxis, and many other emergencies. Other times, shortness of breath may be caused by an underlying medical condition like asthma, COPD, or heart failure.

According to the American Lung Association, breathing that becomes harder or difficult for no obvious reason might be a sign of a serious medical condition and warrants a call to your healthcare provider. Contact a healthcare provider if you have a cough that won’t go away or hear a wheeze (whistling sound in your chest) when you breathe in and out.

Seek immediate medical attention if your shortness of breath is accompanied by symptoms like chest pain or pressure, fainting, or nausea. Go to the emergency room or call 911 if you experience any of the following:

  • Lips or nails that are turning blue
  • Flaring nostrils every time you inhale
  • 30 or more breaths per minute
  • Trouble walking or talking at a normal pace
  • The skin between your ribs or at the base of your throat stretches when you inhale

Breathing exercises are a valuable way to improve your lung efficiency and control your breathing rate as well as manage stress and anxiety. Using breathing exercises on a regular basis can result in better lung function and help improve symptoms associated with a variety of medical concerns.

Get immediate medical care if you experience difficulty breathing, chest pain, or dizziness, or you notice that you are taking 30 more breaths per minute. Sometimes shortness of breath signals a medical emergency or an underlying health condition that needs to be managed.

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