You've probably heard that working out can be a great stress reliever, but did you know that exercising actually causes a stress response in your body? Heart rate and breathing increase to meet the oxygen demands of your hard-working muscles.
The good news is, not all workouts have to be stressful. One tiny change can help you feel calmer when working out — breathing through your nose.
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Why Breathing Matters During Exercise
Exercise triggers the body's "flight or fight" response. This mechanism, as explained by Harvard Health Publishing, involves a series of physiological changes that kick in as a response to stressful situations. Originally, it was a survival mechanism that was particularly important for humans who faced life-threatening situations during the hunter-gatherer period (like being chased by a wild animal).
During exercise, the sympathetic nervous system increases your heart rate and blood pressure to boost blood flow to your hard-working muscles, according to an article published in May 2019 by the Journal of Physiological Sciences. It also increases your rate of breathing to provide more oxygen to your exercising muscles.
In contrast to the sympathetic nervous system, the parasympathetic nervous system has the opposite effect on the body. Nasal breathing activates the parasympathetic nervous system, which helps slow your heart rate and breathing. This produces a calming effect on the body — even during a high-intensity workout.
According to the American Institute of Stress, your nose is the only organ that was meant for breathing. Not only does nasal breathing help you use your lungs more fully, it also warms, humidifies and filters the air coming into your lungs. This is especially helpful when exercising in dry or cool environments.
Nasal breathing also increases oxygen transport throughout your body and facilitates proper functioning of your diaphragm — the breathing muscle — which is particularly important during exercise.
The Right Way to Breathe During Exercise
As your workout progresses, you'll likely find yourself breathing harder. This increased respiration rate during exercise can lead to panting, or taking in big gulps of air through your mouth. You might feel like you're bringing more oxygen into your body, but it isn't necessarily getting to the muscles that need it.
And there's absolutely a difference between the amount of oxygen in your blood and the amount of oxygen that's transferred to the muscles that are working during exercise, Maillard Howell, BSc, CrossFit L2 Trainer, owner of Dean CrossFit and creator of The Beta Way, tells LIVESTRONG.com
"What affects the transport of oxygen from the blood to the working muscles is the carbon dioxide levels," he says. This waste product is removed from your body each time you exhale. "There is an inverse relationship — higher levels of carbon dioxide in the muscles triggers the release of oxygen from the blood into the muscles."
But mouth breathing is actually a type of over-breathing, and over-breathing during exercise can cause the body to get rid of too much carbon dioxide, according to the American Institute of Stress. This results in less oxygen being delivered to the muscles that need it.
Over-breathing can have a significant negative impact on your exercise performance. If enough oxygen isn't getting to your muscles, you won't be able to continue exercising. As Howell points out, "sustained efficiency of the machinery of exercise can be improved over time by nasal breathing."
Try Nasal Breathing During Your Next Workout
The first step in practicing nasal breathing during exercise is to leave your ego at the door, according to Howell. "Because we want to minimize stimulating the flight or fight reaction of panting, we have to go slower than normal when exercising to maintain the ability to perform without going from nose to mouth breathing," he says.
At first, Howell began focusing on nasal breathing just during his warm-ups. "My warm-ups are not strenuous, but habit sometimes makes us feel we need to breathe through the mouth," he says. Now, Howell incorporates nasal breathing during a variety of exercise, including his 400-meter runs, CrossFit workouts and strength-training routines.
Howell recommends that beginners focus on moving with intention during low-level warm-up exercises while only breathing through the nose. Once you've mastered that skill, nasal breathing can be practiced during activities such as jogging or cycling intervals.
Practice doesn't have to be limited only to your exercise sessions — you can practice nasal breathing sitting at your desk or during active daily tasks such as climbing stairs. Bring air into your lungs from the bottom up, filling your belly with air rather than just expanding your chest.
Try Some Yoga
If you find it difficult to focus on your nasal breathing during your regular workout, try some yoga. Conscious breathing exercises, or pranayama, are a foundational part of the any yoga practice, according to Kimberly Mays, RYT-200.
As a yoga teacher, Mays recommends the practice of alternate nostril breathing, known as Nadi Shodhana Pranyama. This practice is believed to improve respiratory and cardiovascular health while also decreasing blood pressure and stress.
- Clear your nasal passages of any potential blockages by gently blowing your nose.
- Sit comfortably on a chair or the ground with your spine straight.
- Close your mouth. Avoid clenching your teeth or tightening your jaw.
- Touch the tips of your index and middle fingers of your left hand to your forehead, between your eyes.
- Close your eyes.
- Use your thumb to close your left nostril and exhale through your right nostril.
- Inhale deeply through your right nostril.
- Use your ring finger to close off your right nostril.
- Release your thumb and exhale through your left nostril.
- Inhale deeply through your left nostril and repeat this process for several minutes.
- International Journal of Kinesiology & Sports Science: "Oral versus Nasal Breathing during Moderate to High Intensity Submaximal Aerobic Exercise"
- Harvard Health Publishing: "Understanding the Stress Response"
- The Journal of Physiological Sciences: "Muscle Sympathetic Nerve Activity During Exercise"
- The American Institute of Stress: "The Health Benefits of Nose Breathing"