There is a vast array of knowledge that fitness and health professionals keep tucked away in their brilliant brains. It’s disappointing that this information is either not shared or is not communicated in easy-to-digest pieces. For this reason, I’ve decided to put together a very small sampling of some of the most important, unexpected things to know about exercise. You will see a dramatic change in your body and confidence if you put these tips to action. Ready? Set? Let’s GO!
We will focus exclusively on the breath today. Yes, it’s that important…go figure.
YOUR BREATH IS POWERFUL
Any person with a brain in their head knows that not breathing will cause you to, um…die. Things just got serious. This fact alone shows us the power of oxygen. What some people don’t know is that we can manipulate the breath in a number of ways for exercise performance, metabolic changes, and peace of mind. Faster breathing impacts the sympathetic nervous system (fight-or-flight) and slower breathing impacts the parasympathetic nervous system (rest-and-digest). Different forms of exercise utilize various breathing techniques to activate one of these two systems. For example:
Swimming: Bilateral breathing is crucial for swimmers’ performance. As I’m not the most expert swimmer, I will allow Swim Smooth to explain: “Bilateral is swimming jargon for breathing to both sides, left and right. Classically this is done every 3 strokes (counting both arms) so your breathing alternates from side to side. But equally it could be done every 5 or even 7 strokes.”
Pilates: I can remember my first Pilates class to this day. I had NO idea what was going on and figuring out the breathing completely boggled my mind. Various disciplines/formats of pilates even coach you to breathe differently. Some have you breathe in and out through your nose only (like in yoga) and others encourage you to inhale through your nose and exhale through your mouth. It can certainly be confusing for beginners. Make note of this: whenever you “pull in” or try to squeeze your abs in class is typically when you exhale. If you don’t breathe “perfectly,” don’t sweat it. The Pilates Police will never know.
Running: Health and Fitness Director Budd Coates has brought increased awareness to rhythmic breathing in running over the past few years. To save you the stress of all the science (which exercise nerds like me love), I will explain it as succinctly as possible. When we run, we tend to use more energy from the dominant side of our body (probably the side of your body that you kick and throw a ball from). This creates extra stress on muscles on that side of the body and typically results in us exhaling as our dominant leg makes contact with the ground. At this point, the force that goes up into our bodies is 2-3x our normal body weight. To keep this stress more evenly distributed, rhythmic breathing helps runners learn how to sync their breath with their strides so that the exhalation is more balanced left-to-right foot strike, and stress is more evenly distributed.
Yoga: There are numerous breathing techniques in yoga. The breathing practice, Pranayama, is one of the most important and foundational components of Ashtanga yoga. When I was in yoga teacher training at Yoga Vidya Dham I learned about an instructor who practiced “fire breath” so much on his own that he both lost over 30 lbs and suffered from internal bleeding. He had to be rushed to a hospital for treatment. Unbelievable, right? When done properly, breathing techniques in yoga induce calmness, clarity of mind, and focus. There’s a little something for everyone and with experimentation and practice, you’ll find a technique that you love. This site has great, simple videos of some common techniques: http://www.doyogawithme.com/yoga_breathing
Quick tip: In yoga you are almost always exhaling as you bend or move forward, closing off your body in your mid-section. You almost always inhale as you open your body, bending backward or away from your mid-section.
Lifting weights: It’s helpful to breathe slowly so that oxygen supplies “refill” your muscles, to the greatest extent possible, in between reps. This gives your body energy to keep going through the set. It also helps to exhale forcefully at the hardest point of each rep to push past what is called your “sticking point.” If you’ve ever tried to lift a heavy weight over your head and felt a point of resistance that was almost impossible to push past, you know where the sticking point is for that exercise. The same applies to all movements. Why does the forceful exhale help at this point? It helps because your diaphragm (which contracts and releases with your breath) is attached to a muscle in your core, the transverse abdominus. This muscle, when pulled in tight with an exhale, helps stabilize your body and thereby assists any lift you’re doing. Just don’t forget to inhale too! Kind of important. When you’re not exercising the transverse abdominus acts like a gentle corset around your middle.
Now that you’ve WAY overthought various breathing techniques, remember to take a deep breath. Wink wink. With practice, you will get to where you want to be. It may take a while and at times, it might make you blue in the face, but sure enough, you will eventually be in full control of your breathing. Once you are, the power you have to stay composed during intense exercise will be incredible. You may also find that calming down your racing heart and shallow breathing is easier when your significant other forgets to pick up dry cleaning, your child cries bloody murder over a toy you refuse to buy, or your favorite pair of shoes is out of stock just when you need them most.
Stay tuned for tips similar to The Nitty Gritty! There’s plenty more of this good stuff in store for you…
Yours in health and wellness,