If you find yourself picking up cold after cold during the winter months, it may be time to assess how strong your cardiorespiratory fitness is. Writer Jessica Harris has been looking into the role our breathing plays in keeping us well.
Take a deep breath. It may be an instinct that we’ve tried to stifle in public over the last two years – breathing in bits of face mask fabric with each inhale – but breathing deeply should be a vital part of our health and fitness regimes. In fact, a good old huff and puff may well help us to build both stronger muscles and a strong immune system.
Breathing our way to better immunity may sound far-fetched but the science is really quite simple. It’s all to do with working on our cardiorespiratory fitness.
Those who paid attention in science will know that our lungs move blood to the heart, which then extracts oxygen to pump around the body – including to our muscles. It does this roughly 22,000 times a day, every day. Throw the odd spin class or squat press into the mix, and you’ll increase your oxygen intake as well as the circulation of immune cells.
“Our cardiorespiratory fitness relates to the capacity of our circulatory and respiratory systems to supply oxygen to our skeletal muscles in order for you to move and carry out a form of activity,” explains Dr Jodie Moss, exercise physiologist for Healthspan. “As oxygen is the energy source required by your muscle to move, the higher your capacity to supply oxygen to your skeletal muscles, the better your fitness.
“Having a good level of cardiorespiratory fitness is important for reducing the risk of various chronic health conditions such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes and certain cancers.” She also says that it’s been associated with improved mental wellbeing, cognitive function and – crucially – “a healthy, functioning immune system”.
How does breathing help boost immunity?
Before you start making yourself lightheaded in the quest for eternal health, Dr Moss is quick to point out that while simply breathing can’t fight off every bug and virus alone, it does kick-start an important chain of events. “Although we’re unable to boost our immune system through exercise, nutrition or breathwork alone, all three help to reduce inflammation,” she says.
It’s that inflammation which is detrimental to our immune systems: “Controlled breathing, even when sitting, can lower the stress hormone cortisol, which is a main cause of inflammation throughout the body.”
One expert who is all too familiar with the benefits of breathwork on our immune system is Rebecca Dennis, author of Let It Go and practitioner at Breathing Tree. Dennis believes that diaphragmatic breathing can strengthening our lung capacity, which in turn, helps our pulmonary system to cope with anxiety and stress.
“Practising conscious breathing helps to stimulate our parasympathetic nervous system (PNS), which allows our body to rest and digest, slows the heart rate, lowers blood pressure and respiratory rate, and diverts blood supply towards the digestive and reproductive systems,” she explains.
“When the PNS is active, the sympathetic nervous system (SNS), which is responsible for raising our heart rate as well as diverting blood to the brain and skeletal muscle, becomes less active by default.”
It’s by overriding our SNS that we can interrupt the excessive production of adrenaline and cortisol. When those stress responses are left unchecked, they find their way into our lymphoid tissue where new immune cells are maturing – hindering their development.
Can changing the way we breathe improve our overall fitness?
It makes sense that the more we breathe, the more immune cells circulate – but it’s not until we work up a sweat that our defenses are called upon for duty. When our muscles contract, it sends a signal to our immune cells to wake up and scan the body for any unwanted intruders – a process that can last up to three hours after we’ve finished working out, according to a study published in the British Journal Of Sports Medicine. “When you exercise regularly, you enlarge your heart muscle which enables more blood to be pumped out per heartbeat,” Dr Moss explains.
“As a result, more blood that contains nutrients and oxygen can be delivered to your muscles.” Dr Moss goes on to say that moving regularly throughout the day (such as getting up from your desk for a stretch or to make a cup of coffee) is just as important as completing 30 minutes of continuous exercise in one go.
She also says that the increase in blood flow helps to clear bacteria from your lungs and has an anti-inflammatory influence. When we exercise, our body temperature increases too, which “may help to prevent bacteria growing by having a protective effect”.
3 breathing exercises to boost your immunity
Try Dr Moss’s quick and simple breathing exercises for firing up the immune system.
- Lie on your back.
- Take a breath by inhaling through your nose while you count from one to four.
- At four, hold and then exhale through your nose and count back from four to one. As you breathe, ensure that the breath comes from your belly rather than chest.
- Repeat four times.
- Stand with the feet placed shoulder width apart with knees bent.
- Place your hands on your lower abdomen and inhale through the mouth, expanding the diaphragm.
- Exhale quickly through the mouth making the sound ‘ha’.
- Repeat rapidly for two minutes.
- Lie on your back.
- Place one hand on your upper chest and one hand below your rib cage – this will help guide you on the breathwork movement.
- Slowly inhale through your nose. During this movement, you should feel your stomach pressing into your hand.
- Exhale through your mouth as you tighten your stomach muscles, keeping your upper hand still.
- Repeat four times.
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