Exercise of the week: Breathing Part 2; "Hold your breath"

This week, as nerves run higher, and the stress of the holidays starts to mount, we want to bring you three breathing drills that we use both in our assessments and in our practice for various reasons. We recommend you try the breathing drills as you go through this article - so find a quiet space, and a spot on the floor, and continue reading!

First off, a little disclaimer is that we don't claim to be breathing experts at Vital. We range from exercise physiologists (myself) to strength and conditioning coaches, athletic therapists, and physical literacy specialists. We use breathing drills to help dial in the parasympathetic nervous system, which is in charge of the "rest and recover" stimulus that opposes the stressful "fight or flight" stimulus in the body. We also have to have a baseline knowledge of the posture associated with dysfunctional breathing postures, some knowledge of gas exchange (and at a higher level, how this gas exchange relates to fitness and various intensities of exercise), and we often have to teach people when to breathe during lifts, during conditioning, and in recovery.

*Try this before you continue*: lay on you back in a quiet room, and take a few big deep breaths in and out until you feel calm. Then, grab a stop watch, breathe in, hold your breath, and time how long you can hold your breath before needing a big breath in. *Record the time you could hold your breath on your first try*

Physiologically, if you cannot hold your breath for very long, it could mean that you produce excess CO2 at rest. CO2 (carbon dioxide) is a bi-product that is produced naturally from metabolism in the human body, but also that is produced in higher quantities during exercise. If you have a hard time recovering from a bout of exercise (slower to return to resting metabolic rates), or if your body is perceiving stress even at rest (yes, work stress can have a physiological effect on your CO2 levels due to the "perceived stress"), you could be stuck in a fight-or-flight state. If your body is resting, but your systems are acting like you're exercising, this excess stress hormone release, on a chronic basis, could be a driver of chronic disease.

So, back to the hold-your-breath test. Could you hold your breath for somewhere between 30 seconds and 2 minutes? That's pretty good. Anecdotally, when we try this with clients, those that cannot initially hold their breath for at least 30 seconds, need some work on training themselves to relax, lower their heart rate, and produce less CO2 at rest. A quick daily meditation, or working on this before starting a stressful work day is a good place to begin.

Next, as promised, we want to teach you three breathing drills that work on a combination of mobility, strength, or breathing coordination:

Were those breathing tests hard? If these were hard for one of these three reasons; A) Strength (shaky or can't get to the end ranges) B) Mobility (feeling like something is getting a big stretch during the drills) C) Coordination (can't quite replicate the drills or feel like your skill in making the contractions isn't quite there); then you might need to practice these.

In the next instalment of this breathing series, we will talk about Nose Breathing, and whether or not there are benefits as far as the research shows. Have other questions about Breathing? Feel free to send us a message and we will be sure to tackle it in follow up posts to come!


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Dempsey, J. a, Sheel, a W., St Croix, C. M., & Morgan, B. J. (2002). Respiratory influences on sympathetic vasomotor outflow in humans. Respiratory Physiology & Neurobiology, 130, 3–20. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0034-5687(01)00327-9

Engelen, M., Porszasz, J., Riley, M., Wasserman, K., Maehara, K., & Barstow, T. J. (1996). Effects of hypoxic hypoxia on O2 uptake and heart rate kinetics during heavy exercise. Journal of Applied Physiology (Bethesda, Md. : 1985), 81, 2500–2508.

Johnson, B. D., Weisman, I. M., Zeballos, R. J., & Beck, K. C. (1999). Emerging concepts in the evaluation of ventilatory limitation during exercise: The exercise tidal flow-volume loop. Chest Journal, 116, 488–503. https://doi.org/10.1378/chest.116.2.488

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