Updated 16 April 2013

Breathe the right way

If you want an all-over health boost with very little effort, all you have to do is breathe . . . deeply.


Sometimes the smallest things come with the biggest benefits. Breathing deeply is one of them.

It’s a simple formula for improved health: breathe correctly and consciously for a few short minutes a day and you’ll feel the effects for a full 24 hours. “In fact,” says Cape Town clinical psychologist Neil Tuck, “breathing properly is a central part of staying healthy.”

Tuck has worked extensively in the field of stress and anxiety management – a field that acknowledges the role of breathing in helping to reduce stress levels, stimulate the immune system, control weight, lower blood pressure and manage stress-related disorders.

So isn’t it time you turned your breathing into a health boost?

Step 1: Take a moment

“This is not something that should be done once a week or once a day,” says Tuck.

“Rather make good breathing part of your daily routine by automatically doing spot checks at certain times of the day.”

Choose daily moments to focus on breathing correctly – perhaps while you’re waiting at the traffic lights, just after waking up in the morning or during your tea break at work.

Because this practice “centres” you and makes you aware of where and how you’re feeling,

Tuck suggests you use the time to ask yourself the following three questions:

What am I feeling physically?
What am I feeling emotionally?
What am I thinking?

Step 2: Breathe like a pro

After checking in with your body and mind, try these better-breathing tips from Cape Town physiotherapist Claire Louw:

  1. First, lie down or sit up straight (standing is not as beneficial).
  2. Imagine you’re growing taller or that you’re being pulled up by your ears towards the sky – this will make you drop your shoulders and straighten your back.
  3. Place your hands with fingertips touching just below your rib cage.
  4. Inhale deeply through your nose without moving your shoulders (shallow chest breathing generally causes shoulders to bunch up). The aim is to expand your rib cage and drop your diaphragm – your fingertips should move apart if you’re breathing deep enough.
  5. Exhale through your mouth. Keeping your lips pursed on exhalation is especially helpful for asthmatics as it reduces the risk of the alveoli in the lungs collapsing.
  6. Continue breathing in and out deeply and slowly for five minutes – avoid shallow or rapid breaths.
  7. A few extra sniffs of air at the end and breathe out slowly. Proper deep breathing should relax anyone.

Benefits of deep breathing

  • The feel-good factor. Breathing deeply relieves muscle tension, anxiety and general stress. In fact, a better flow of oxygen can either calm you down or increase your level of stimulation (that’s why we yawn).
  • A postural pick-me-up. Most people straighten their backs when they take a deep breath. 
  • Weight off your chest. Learning to breathe correctly can relieve chest pains and anxiety. It also helps bronchitis and asthma patients by reducing chest tightness.
  • Extra efficiency. Deep breathing delivers more oxygen to your organs, allowing them to function more efficiently. A 2006 study published in the Journal of Lymphodaema also revealed that deeper breathing has a positive effect on lymphatic drainage.
  • Better digestion. According to Health24 DietDoc Dr Ingrid van Heerden breathing deeply improves digestion by helping to relieve stress.

It also indirectly benefits conditions such as ulcers, gastritis, reflux disorder and irritable bowel syndrome, which are all exacerbated by sky-high stress levels.


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