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Breathing Exercises

12 November 2020
Breathing Exercises

If you are looking to add something new to your exercise regime, consider breathwork or breathing exercises. I know, your first response is… breathing is not exercise. That was the same response my professor in graduate school gave me and then suggested I pick another topic for my paper. Of course me being stubborn, I wrote the paper on breathing exercises proving that it was in fact an exercise and can result in positive changes in tidal volume as well as numerous benefits to your physical and mental health. 

That initial foray into breathwork occurred about twenty years ago when little was known as to the benefits of breathwork, and most of the information out there seemed like hippy dippy nonsense at first glance. Today, however, there exists a vast array of studies touting the benefits of these exercises. Consider this, each of us carries around about 10 lbs. of respiratory muscles, and those muscles, just like any other muscle can undergo adaptations to their structure and function depending on the type of exercises performed. 

You may be asking yourself at this point, why exercise muscles that already work without ever having to think about them. The short answer is because you can.  According to Dr. Belisa Vranich, a psychologist and author, 9 out of 10 people breathe incorrectly, mostly breathing from the upper body causing accessory inspiratory muscles to become overworked. Taking an average of 12-16 breaths per minute, that comes out to between 17,280 to 23,040 breaths per day.  Anything done 23 thousand times a day might as well be done correctly. 

As first responders, we are prone to increased activation of the sympathetic nervous system by continually being put in a flight or fight state. In more severe cases it can result in a condition known as sympatheticotonia (excess “fire” in Chinese Medicine) characterized by heightened blood pressure, insomnia, continuous pain and depression. The breath, which normally is controlled by the autonomic nervous system can also be controlled consciously, and by controlling our breath, we can elicit a positive effect on other autonomic functions. One study suggests than just the act of slowing your breathing down for fifteen minutes 3-4 a week may cause a clinically significant sustained reduction in blood pressure in just three weeks.

There are a great number of breathing exercises to choose from. On any given day I normally select from a combination of Bhastrika, bee breath, Taoist four stage breathing, buteyko and or Wim Hof method breathing.  Those methods can get a little involved, however, you can start reaping the benefits right away by just slowing down your breath using diaphragmatic breathing, inhaling through your nose.  And you can do these exercises at any time, waiting in line at the grocery store and even sitting down watching the game.

For more information on breathing exercise, there are a lot resources out there available on the web. I am currently reading Breathing for Warriors by Dr. Belisa Vranich and Brian Sabin which is an excellent resource for all things breath related. Next on my list is Breath: New Science of a Lost Art by James Nestor which is also a great resource. Lastly be sure to check out Wim Hof, known as the “Iceman” who besides have developed his own breathing technique, has to be one of the most interesting people on the planet today.

Take a breath, breathe slowly and be well.

bio photo

Lieutenant Michael "Sporty" Kilbane

Michael Kilbane is a retired officer from the Cleveland Fire Department having served for over 35 years.

In that time, he has spearheaded many efforts to advance the betterment of the division through wellness initiatives and grants. He has also authored a pamphlet on maintaining back strength and health for firefighters.  Mr. Kilbane’s education includes an undergraduate degree in both Philosophy and Natural Health, along with master’s level coursework in both Physiology and Philosophy.  He is also a member of the National Strength and Conditioning Association and is recognized through that organization as a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist. As a trained massotherapist, Mr. Kilbane has also witnessed literally first hand the damage done to first responders by over straining in some of the most hostile work environments. His most recent focus is utilizing kettle bells for functional training and is the author of The Athletes Ultimate Guide to Kettlebell Training.

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