Take a deep breath: You'll subdue stress, stave off sickness, stay calm, and more.

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Lungs filled with air
| Credit: Joy Gosney

If you’re bent on improving your health, you’re probably exercising and watching what you eat. But you would be wise to pay attention to how you breathe, too. Studies show that mindful breathing can do wonders to increase your well-being. (Extra incentives: It’s free, you own the necessary equipment, and you can practice it anywhere.) Considering the fact that you take in air about 20,000 times a day, there’s plenty of opportunity to reap the rewards. On the next pages, experts explain how breathing affects the body and the mind and offer hassle-free exercises to make the most of it.

The Benefits

There are myriad health reasons to improve your breathing. Research suggests that deeper and slower inhaling and exhaling can help your body heal faster from illness, lower blood pressure, and possibly help increase immunity. Studies have also shown that the deep breathing associated with meditation can stimulate growth of the brain’s frontal cortex, which regulates emotion, says James Baltzell, a physician in Minneapolis and the author of Meditation for the Rest of Us ($18, amazon.com). So fuller breaths may contribute to making you a measurably more content person. Now, how about that?

What Happens When You Inhale

As you draw air in through your nose or mouth, your pulmonary cavity (the space that houses your heart and lungs) expands. “The muscles between the ribs cause the rib cage to widen, and the diaphragm moves down,” says Baltzell. This fills your lungs with oxygen, which moves to your bloodstream to help cells produce energy. When you exhale, you release carbon dioxide, a toxin produced by the body. The release of this chemical helps your organs work efficiently.

Whether you’re aware of it or not, your breathing often changes depending on the situation you’re in, says Jennifer Davis, a psychotherapist at Duke Integrative Medicine, in Durham, North Carolina. “When you’re anxious, you naturally take quick, shallow breaths,” says Michael McKee, a psychologist at the Cleveland Clinic, in Ohio. That happens because your body releases adrenaline and cortisol, and these chemicals elevate your heart rate and increase your blood pressure.

When you feel calm, however, your breathing slows, and your blood pressure and heart rate drop. But here’s the catch: With the fast pace of life today, it’s more likely that you’re breathing shallowly all the time (you may even occasionally hold your breath). This can weaken your immune system and increase your risk of developing disorders such as cardiovascular disease.

How to Breathe Better

If you want to observe the most constructive breathing, look at sleeping babies, says McKee. They slowly draw air deep into their lungs, which expands their abdomens; then they exhale smoothly. As adults, it pays to follow their lead. “When we slow down our breathing, we can interrupt and decrease our stress response and engage our minds and bodies in the relaxation response,” says Davis. And concentrating on our breathing can help anchor us in the present moment, which can be a useful tool to quell worry and increase productivity.

Easy Breathing Exercises

Paying attention to the way you inhale and exhale doesn’t have to be all-consuming or boring. McKee suggests a deep breath at regular times during the day (before answering the phone, say) and as you pull into the driveway after work. This alone will help you relax and focus. For more health benefits, try these fast techniques.

1. Belly Breathing

When to try it: In a stressful situation, like waiting at the doctor’s office.
How to do it: Sit upright with shoulders relaxed. Take one regular breath and notice where it goes: into your chest or into your abdomen. (It may help to place a hand on each area and feel which one rises and falls.) Next, inhale through your nose and imagine the air filling your abdomen; exhale. On subsequent breaths, “see if you can begin to increase the rise of your belly as you inhale more deeply,” says Davis. Repeat as many times as you like―even two or three breaths are calming.

2. Focused Breathing

When to try it: If you can’t fall asleep or need to quiet your mind.
How to do it: Position yourself flat on your back or upright in a chair. Begin with a deep belly breath. As you inhale, say a positive word or phrase to yourself―for example, “Peace” or “I am happy.” Then, when exhaling, imagine breathing out a negative quality, like stress or anxiety. This way, “you’re using words to switch into a quiet, relaxed state of mind,” says Baltzell. You can also visualize breathing in a soothing color. Or you can count as you breathe: In on one, out on two, up to 10 times, then repeat the sequence. Whichever method you pick, do it for at least five minutes at a time.

3. Alternate-Nostril Breathing

When to try it: First thing in the morning; after a workout. (This is a yoga technique that has been shown to soothe the mind.)
How to do it: Sit comfortably in a chair or on the floor. Bring your right hand up to your nose. With your thumb, gently hold your right nostril closed and inhale through your left nostril. Release your thumb, hold your left nostril closed with your ring finger, then exhale through your right nostril. Now inhale through your right nostril, release the ring finger, close the right nostril with your thumb, and breathe out through your left nostril. “Be sure not to turn your head toward your hand. Keep it in a neutral position,” says Richard Rosen, a yoga teacher in Berkeley, California, and the author of The Yoga of Breath ($19, amazon.com). Start with five back-and-forth rounds and work up to 10.