Breathing. We all do it. Every second of every minute of every hour of every day. But the difference between doing it right and wrong can be the difference between good and poor health.
"Just as we develop a habit of overeating, we can also develop a habit of over-breathing," says Patrick McKeown, author of The Oxygen Advantage.
According to McKeown, the unconscious habit of over-breathing has hit epidemic proportions across the industrialised world, leading to loss of health, poor fitness and compromised performance. He believes that it's contributing to problems such as anxiety, fatigue, insomnia, heart problems and obesity.
"The causes of over-breathing – or breathing a volume of air greater than bodily requirements – vary from individual to individual, but are usually due to environmental factors or lifestyle habits," says McKeown. These include overeating, stress, talking at length, a sedentary lifestyle and spending too much time in poorly ventilated rooms.
"Healthy breathing should be quiet, calm and almost undetectable," he says. "Unhealthy breathing, on the other hand, involves breathing through the mouth or having noticeable breathing during rest.
"The way we breathe influences how much oxygen is released from the lungs to the blood and from the blood to the tissues and cells. It also influences our blood circulation, affecting the dilation or constriction of blood vessels which supply the organs with oxygen."
Correct breathing can not only assist with conditions such as asthma, hay fever and high blood pressure, it can also enhance our overall wellbeing, says McKeown. "Everyday benefits include improved stress control and an increase in energy and concentration. By altering the breath, it's also possible for athletes to improve their aerobic and anaerobic performance."
Important habits to nurture include breathing from the stomach rather than the chest, and through the nose rather than the mouth. If you find your breath quickening, consciously slow it down. If your breathing becomes more noticeable, quieten it. When your breathing becomes erratic, focus on taking slow, calm and quiet breaths instead. If you're a frequent sigher, try to suppress those sighs.
According to McKeown, improving your breathing is key to combating stress – one of the most common problems in today's society.
"Habitually breathing through the mouth increases stress because it activates the upper chest – characteristic of how we breathe during stress – and increases the amount of air we take into our lungs," he says. "Breathing too much air disturbs blood gases and reduces the amount of oxygen delivered to the brain. This is especially pertinent for people prone to anxiety and panic attacks."
McKeown argues that the conventional wisdom that taking a deep breath will help calm us down "just doesn't make sense". Instead, he recommends the opposite. "Slow, quiet, calm breathing allows blood gases and operating systems to restore to normal."
Correct breathing can also improve our sleep, helping us to wake up feeling energised and refreshed. "Light and calm breathing [in our waking hours] reduces both snoring and obstructive sleep apnoea as well as activating the body's relaxation mode, leading to better-quality sleep," McKeown says.
Your workouts will also be better quality if you adopt correct breathing techniques in your general day-to-day life. "How we breathe during rest determines how we breathe during physical exercise," says McKeown. "Breathing a volume of air greater than what the body requires reduces the amount of oxygen delivered to the cells. Lactic acid increases, fatigue sets in and the athlete cannot maintain their exercise intensity."
So, isn't it about time you stopped to take a breath? A correct one, that is.