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Minutes a day - Breathing

Welcome to the pages of Minutes a Day™, a series of pages dedicated to bringing you free information on a range of simple techniques that could improve well-being, health and happiness. Each can be carried out in just minutes a day.

Healthy Living

How do you breathe?

So, someone asks you to take a deep breath... what do you do? More than likely you suck your stomach in, shove your chest out, and get very tight across your shoulders? This probably isn't helping!

Before we look at how to breathe, let's examine why slow, deep breathing is so beneficial.

Your total lung capacity is around 5.8 litres, although it varies according to your gender, height, age, if you smoke or if you're a top athlete. In a typical calm breath, you will normally only exchange around 0.5 litres of fresh air in your lungs, known sometimes as the 'tidal volume'. (You also normally have around 25% of your total lung capacity sitting around in your lungs at any time not really doing much.)

Your typical breathing efficiency:

If you measure your normal breathing rate more than likely you'll also find it to be around 12-15 times per minute, completing each in-out cycle of breath around once every 4 seconds.

Now imagine if you can, how your lungs are made up. Each new breath provides fresh air into each small chamber within the lungs. Where this air comes into contact with the sides of your lungs, oxygen is transferred through the lung wall to the blood flow, to be transported around the body.

You may or may not notice that above your lungs is your throat, which is not wholly effective at separating out the oxygen (it's actually pretty bad!). So in each breath your only draw in around 0.5 litres of air (around one pint), which is actually just 10% of your total lung capacity but you're also already wasting a good proportion of that in the throat which can't diffuse the oxygen into your body!

For the sake of argument, say the throat takes up around 0.2 litres in volume of air (about a third of a pint). So for a typical calm breath, if you only draw in 0.5 litres of new air, you waste around 40% of it (0.2 litres) in your throat, leaving you with only 0.3 litres of air to work with (which is around just 5% of your total lung capacity!) For clarity, if you multiply this by your total number of breaths over a minute, you're effectively bringing 4.5 litres of fresh air into your body each minute.

Slowing down your breathing:

Imagine now if you slowed down and doubled the length of time for which you take a breath. Assuming all other variables remain constant, you'll then be breathing in around one litre of air in each breath. Thus with 0.2 litres wasted in the throat (ie 20%) you are left with 0.8 litres of effective air each breath. Multiplying this by the number of cycles in a minute, gives you 6 litres of effective air each minute. That's a 33% increase in efficiency!

Imagine now if you completed a breathing cycle once every 15 seconds (or four times a minute) you're then drawing in nearly 2 litres of total air each breath (still only around a third of your total lung capacity). With the 0.2 litres wasted in the throat, you have 1.8 litres of effective air each breath, or over the course of a minute, giving you 7.2 litres of effective air. This is 60% more efficient than breathing at your normal rate!

So why else should I breathe slowly?

Breathing slowly is proven to have a positive effect on reducing stress, relaxing the mind and body. As you can gather from the above calculations, it could also bring in up to 60% more oxygen into your body! Be careful though, if you consciously slow your breath and increase the amount of oxygen in your body, it could easily go to your head making you a bit dizzy or light headed, so work up to slowing your breath gradually.

The good thing about breathing is that it's both conscious, and unconscious. When you connect with your breathing you're connecting with what's inside you, rather than being distracted by external sensory input. This can help you to relax as it can help you to effectively 'shut off' from external distractions.

How else can I learn to breathe more deeply?

To learn to breathe more deeply, a good idea is to lay yourself down on a comfortable flat surface. Gently place both hands flat on your stomach palm down, with your thumbs gently resting around your navel. Now gradually focus on lifting your hands starting first with your little fingers, and progressing by filling the lungs gradually through the hands towards the thumbs, continuing in the same manner to your chest.

The breath should at all times be calm, gentle, unhurried and unforced. You should be looking to relax the breath by extending each breathing cycle, not rushing it to get more air into your lungs within a shorter time period (otherwise the extra oxygen will go to your head!). The more you practise, the easier it becomes, and thus to relax, all you need to do is recognise your breath, relax the breath, and then slow and calm the mind and body!


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