By Dan Hellman

What’s the difference between you and a dead guy? Well, in the simplest terms, you’re breathing, and he isn’t.

Oxygen is the most vital nutrient the body requires, so if you aren’t breathing, nothing else matters. In its natural struggle to survive, the body will sacrifice any or all of its systems to preserve respiration. It will stop supporting digestion, vision, hearing and balance, the organs, emotions and all the joints of the body to keep us breathing.

What is normal respiration?

Medical opinion on what constitutes a “normal” respiration rate for a person at rest varies somewhat, but there is no doubt that slower is better. The Cleveland Clinic puts the normal average at 12-22 breaths per minute, while Johns Hopkins puts it at 12-16. The National Institutes of Health sets it lower, at 8-16 breaths per minute, and there is no doubt in my mind that healthier people have slower rates of respiration, anywhere from 6-10 breaths per minute. Average rates for the population include people in varying states of health and fitness, so “average” or “normal” isn’t necessarily best. I have a friend who is a healthy 68-year old, and he breathes about seven times a minute when at rest. This is good.

Breathing at a rate of 18-22 per minute and beyond is tachypnea if the breathing is short and shallow, and could even be hyperventilation if a person is taking rapid, deep breaths. During hyperventilation, too much carbon dioxide is released and many changes occur in your body. The first change is in the basic biochemistry of the body; pH is lowered and your body actually becomes acidic. This affects every chemical process in your body, and your body simulates a fight-or-flight response.

Proper breathing is a sign of good health–and vice versa.

One recent study involving more than 15,000 people who had visited hospital emergency rooms indicated that a high respiratory rate was a predictor of worsening medical problems after discharge. People who had a higher breathing rate returned to the hospital more often than those with a normal breathing rate.

On the other hand, several other recent studies have associated a slower rate with better health. That includes the discovery that people who breathe 4-10 times a minute, sometimes under controlled conditions, such as yoga, have greater heart rate variability (HRV).

The autonomic nervous system regulates important systems in our body, including heart and respiration rate and digestion, and it has a parasympathetic (rest) and a sympathetic (activation) branch. HRV tells us how well both branches are functioning, particularly the parasympathetic.

HRV is an important indicator of overall health and fitness, especially cardiovascular fitness. Generally speaking, it tells us how recovered and ready we are for the day. It also reacts to changes in our body earlier than heart rate, so it is particularly valuable tool for assessing health and well-being.

Mouth breathing isn’t funny. It is an indicator of problems.

The next time you are at the mall, spend some time people watching, and pay particular attention to people who are mouth breathers. You will probably notice that many of them are overweight or look sick, and they probably have a high respiration rate. Does mouth-breathing cause poor health or is it simply an indicator of poor health? The answer is probably both. But it’s a fact that mouth breathing unleashes a primal reaction in your body: It causes your body to think it is being chased by a tiger. That’s the fight-or-flight response I mentioned earlier. The result is that your body is fooled into thinking it needs to focus on survival, so it doesn’t run your systems the way it should.

Normal respiration should occur through the nose, and breathing through the nose has many benefits. First, the hairs in the nose filter the air to keep the lungs free of particles. Second, the turbinates in the nose warm the air before it enters the lungs. Third, there are receptors in the nose that relax the body and tell it that it’s okay to run your immune system, digestive system, hormonal system, etc.

Has a doctor ever evaluated your respiration?

Has a doctor ever evaluated your respiration? I assume the answer is no, since the average physician visit is six minutes long, and even annual physical exams don’t usually include a full evaluation of respiration rate or mechanics.

At H3, EVERY person who walks through the door gets a respiratory assessment before we begin any conditioning, physical therapy or nutrition program. In addition, I stress proper breathing in every activity I supervise, including personal training, physical therapy and ELDOA. I constantly remind people to breathe, and even how to breathe, during their exercising.

A few years ago, I assessed 112 relatively healthy people in Barbados and Trinidad, and I was surprised to find that only three had normal respiratory mechanics. There are two major causes of faulty respiration. The first and most common is fear or that simulation of fear I discussed earlier. The second is simply a poor understanding of respiratory mechanics and poor coaching by personal trainers or health-and-fitness “professionals” with limited background in anatomy and physiology.

Work to develop proper breathing mechanics.

Breathing mechanics are another important factor for good health. Unfortunately, common sense and basic physiology sometimes are forgotten or simply discarded in today’s world of fads and gimmicks. I have lectured around the world at prestigious fitness conferences and events and was shocked to hear “experts” give advice that only showed their complete ignorance of breathing mechanics. In fact, I heard one lecturer tell trainers to “always brace your stomach because you never know who is watching.” This so-called expert obviously never studied respiratory physiology. 

Here is why this “expert” was wrong: The diaphragm is the most important muscle of your body.  With proper respiration mechanics, the diaphragm drops down upon inhalation, expanding your tummy and creating negative pressure in the lungs.  Whenever there is negative pressure, air rushes in to fill the negative space.  If you breathe while trying to brace your stomach, you actually create inverted breathing mechanics, which cause your neck muscles to lift the rib cage in order to create the negative pressure you need.  Breathing with an inverted breathing pattern causes two things—hyperventilation and chronic neck tension.

What does that tell you? Don’t worry if your belly doesn’t look pretty while you are exercising. Let it stick out so the diaphragm can do its job.

Do trainers really know how to “train”?

The question “do trainers know how to train” is an important one, because the answer often is a resounding no. Personal training certifications can be purchased on line, and many trainers have learned through experience or have training and education that is deficient in human anatomy and physiology. The fact is that breathing is a critical part of any fitness program, and a trainer who doesn’t understand breathing is like a lawyer with poor English. Would you want that lawyer to write you a contract?

For many, personal training is a part-time gig or an occupational way station while they figure out what they really want to do.  They may believe in fitness and have a strong fitness routine, but that doesn’t necessarily qualify them to train. I have a question: We don’t give a driver’s license to drive a car on line, so why do we give one to “drive” the human body on line?  If your trainer has you doing plank after plank and bracing your abs all the time, there is no doubt that you have a faulty respiratory pattern. As a matter of fact, many Pilates instructors and students have faulty respiratory patterns due to the constant bracing.

Focus on your breathing–please!

My plea to everyone, whether you are trying to get very fit or just maintain a healthy body, is to focus on your breathing. If you master breathing, the other pieces of your program will fall into place more easily, and you will feel healthier than ever—because you will be healthier.    

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