In the last several years, researchers have discovered so much more about the fascinating connection between the mind and the gut, also known as the mind-gut connection, that the gut is often referred to as a "second brain."
"This is due to the numerous connections we have between our digestive system and our brain when it comes to digestion, health, mood, immunity and more," Roger E. Adams, PhD, personal trainer, doctor of nutrition and owner of eatrightfitness, tells LIVESTRONG.com. "Mental and emotional stress in the form of anxiety can actually lead to digestive issues like diarrhea, constipation, pain and may even trigger symptoms associated with irritable bowel syndrome."
It's no surprise, then, that research is also exploring the connection between breathing and weight loss, and especially its effectiveness against belly fat.
Here are some science-backed ways breathing and belly fat are connected — and how you can use it as an effective tool to help you tone up.
1. Mindful Breathing May Help Combat Stress-Induced Belly Fat
A troubled mind, whether from mental health concerns or an unhealthy gut microbiome, makes it very difficult to lose belly fat, explains Ashley Matejka, NASM-certified personal trainer, yoga instructor and creator of Wellevance.
In fact, research published November 2011 in Obesity points out that overexposure to the stress hormone cortisol can actually increase the storage of fat in the abdomen.
Countless studies have linked slow or mindful breathing to lower stress levels, including research published October 2016 in PLOS One. In fact, focusing on breathing is one of the main purposes of meditation — it helps lower your heart rate and blood pressure, reduces tension and can even slow down the movement in your digestive system, notes Adams.
"Slow and mindful breaths can slow down the body's response to stress, causing it to elicit or produce less stress hormones that have been linked to increased deposition of adipose tissue (fat) around the midsection," he says.
Therefore, if we're able to learn how to breathe better — slower, and more mindfully — we may be able to gain more control over our body's response to stress and, as an added perk, keep those belly fat storage hormones lower.
"Mindfulness practices, including breathing techniques, activate the parasympathetic nervous system, which turns off our fight-or-flight response and lowers cortisol levels in the body," says Matejka. "When practiced consistently, along with exercise and foods high in nutritional value, you maximize your body's ability to lose belly fat."
As a bonus, mindful breathing may also reduce your desire for high-calorie junk food, according to research published in 2015 in the Journal of Medicine and Life, which linked mindfulness training to weight loss in people who are obese.
Read more: 8 Ways to Beat Stress-Induced Belly Fat
2. Breathing Can Help Strengthen Core Muscles
Yep, in addition to those targeted core moves, plain old breathing, when practiced correctly, can help develop the muscles in the abdomen area.
"While such exercises are mostly isometric in nature and are inferior to load-bearing exercises in building strength, they are better than nothing and will help to burn fat in proportion to how they build muscle," Robert Herbst, CPT, a weight loss coach and powerlifter, tells LIVESTRONG.com.
3. Breathing Helps You Exercise More Efficiently
Unbeknownst to many of us, our diaphragm (a respiratory muscle that also supports our posture) plays a role in helping rid our body of toxins, enhancing our nervous system and even improving the rate at which we burn fat, says Adams.
"Better connection of the nervous system causes better spinal stability and, therefore, improves your success in the gym," he says. "This regular exercise also builds stamina which, in turn, potentiates increased rate of fat cell breakdown excretion through the lungs."
In other words, strengthening your diaphragm can lead to you crushing your workouts, helping you torch more fat.
Plus, improving your breathing patterns can help you exercise more efficiently, meaning you can work out more intensely or for longer durations to burn off more calories. Poor breathing patterns — such as breathing shallowly or holding your breath — can leave you out of breath, cutting your workout short and minimizing your weight loss.
When doing cardio exercises for weight loss, stick to a moderate intensity at which you can carry on a conversation. Learn to breathe naturally from your diaphragm by engaging the abdominal muscles as you exhale and inhale versus just breathing from your ribcage and chest. Your abdomen should inflate slightly as you breathe in and deflate as you exhale.
How to Use Breathing Exercises to Shed Belly Fat
Experts agree that weight loss, including loss of belly fat, is an equation that includes both a healthy diet and an exercise regimen. In essence, it's not very sustainable to have one without the other.
A nutrient-rich diet that focuses on vegetables, lean proteins and healthy fats in moderation while eliminating or greatly reducing polyunsaturated fats and sugar will help you cut fat for a leaner physique.
However, Herbst points out that breathing exercises, when performed in conjunction with a healthy diet and consistent exercise, can help support a weight-loss program.
Here are some breathing exercises experts recommend incorporating into your wellness routine to score some fat-burning benefits.
This type of breathing helps the body relax by lowering the amount of cortisol in your body. "Diaphragmatic breathing naturally disengages the abdominals, so it is known to be great for relaxation purposes, which in turn will only help in times of stress," says Brooke Taylor, ACE- and NASM-certified fitness instructor, certified RRCA running coach and creator of Taylored Fitness. "It is also known to improve digestion."
Try it: To practice this type of breathing, lie on your back and focus on slowly inhaling through your nose. Hold the air in for several seconds (5 is ideal) and exhale for the same amount. Repeat for 5 to 10 minutes.
Transversus Abdominis Breathing
This type of breathing is particularly useful for postpartum women, as it is a therapeutic approach to rehabilitation for diastasis recti, a common condition that results in the separation of abdominal muscles after delivery.
Try it: "As you inhale through your nose, focus on breathing laterally through the ribcage and envision that you are expanding it like an accordian," says Taylor. "As you exhale through pursed lips, flatten/draw your navel in towards your spine, while simultaneously lifting your pelvic floor." This, she explains, will trigger a wrapping sensation like a corset around your central region. She suggests completing 50 to 100 reps a day to build strength and find a deeper connection to your core.
Also known as ocean breath, this type of breathing has a balancing influence on the entire cardiorespiratory system, increasing the amount of oxygen in the blood and calming the nervous system, explains Matejka.
Try it: To do this effectively, she recommends sitting in a comfortable seated position with your legs crossed. "Take a deep breath in through your nose and exhale through the mouth making a 'haaaah' sound that's similar to the sound you make when you're trying to fog up a window or mirror," she says. "As you inhale, slightly contract the back of the throat so the breath creates an ocean wave sound and as you exhale." Repeat for a minimum of six to 10 cycles.
Read more: 8 Easy Mindful-Meditation Techniques
- Obesity: "Stress and abdominal Fat: Preliminary Evidence of Moderation by the Cortisol awakening Response in Hispanic Peripubertal Girls"
- PLOS One: "The Effectiveness of Daily Mindful Breathing Practices on Test Anxiety of Students"
- Journal of Medicine and Life: "Effectiveness of mindfulness training and dietary regime on weight loss in obese people"