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Breathe better, feel better

You can eat and exercise regularly for optimum health—but are you breathing for optimum health? Here’s how to tell whether you breathe with the best of them.

Stand up and breathe deeply. As you inhale, does your belly go in or does it go out? It should go out, breathing experts say, but many people expand only their chests, not their diaphragms (see “A Belly-Breathing How-To”). That means they’re not breathing as deeply as they can.

Why bother about breathing? Slow and controlled inhaling and exhaling can help you relax under tension or stress. Anxiety and stress have been shown to lead to mood swings, sleep difficulties and concentration problems. And chronically high levels of the stress hormone cortisol can boost your blood pressure, speed your heart rate and weaken your immune system. Studies show that stress may also restrict blood flow to the heart, which is dangerous for people with coronary artery disease.

Breathe deeply, and you’ll feel more relaxed and mentally alert, say researchers. Deep breathing can be practiced nearly anywhere—in your car, on line at the grocery store or when your auto mechanic hands you a repair bill for $500. A proper breathing technique may even increase your exercise endurance and prevent “side stitches” during exercise.

The American Heart Association recommends that smokers trying to quit practice deep breathing when they feel the urge to light up. But if stress makes you reach for cookies or a cocktail instead, slow, deep breathing may squelch those destructive behaviors while lowering your heart rate and blood pressure.

A belly-breathing how-to

  • Lie on your back with your legs either outstretched or bent with feet flat on the floor.
  • Support your head with a pillow if desired and make sure you’re comfortable.
  • Place one hand on your abdomen and the other just above your hand on your torso.
  • Inhale through your nose and mentally count to four, expanding your belly as you fill it with air.
  • Exhale while counting to four and release all the air from your belly. Note the rise and fall of your hand on your abdomen.
  • When you have become adept at belly-breathing while reclining, you can try it at different times throughout your day while you’re sitting or standing.

    What to do when you hyperventilate

    Hyperventilation is rapid, deep breathing usually triggered by anxiety or panic. If you’ve never hyperventilated before and experience an episode, call your doctor—you’ll need to rule out an underlying medical disorder.

    Practice slow, deep belly-breathing regularly to relax and exercise to minimize stress. If you continue to hyperventilate, see a psychologist or psychiatrist for help with your anxiety.