The One Exercise To Tell If You're Breathing Right + 3 Tips To Strengthen It
We've discussed the importance of breath time and again here at mbg—but how do you know if you're actually breathing correctly? Unless you have a diagnosed dysfunctional breathing pattern, it can be difficult to tell if there's room for improvement.
Enter, breathing expert and bestselling author Patrick McKeown. On this episode of the mindbodygreen podcast, he shares a helpful exercise to assess your respiratory strength, and it doesn't require any health-tracking wearables or gadgets—just a simple timer to clock how long you can hold your breath.
Ready to test your breath? Find the exercise protocol below, as well as ways to increase your respiratory rate in case it's not up to par.
An exercise to tell if you're breathing right.
"We typically use breath hold time as an indicator of functional breathing patterns," says McKeown. What does this mean? Well, the longer you can hold your breath, the less likely you are to have dysfunctional breathing. Research backs it up, too: According to a study by physical therapist Kyle Kiesel, P.T., Ph.D., participants who were able to hold their breath for more than 25 seconds had an 89% chance that dysfunctional breathing was not present1.
"If you have a person with a score of about 25 seconds, they typically will have a [functional] respiratory rate," McKeown explains. "We're talking about 10 to 14 breaths per minute. And if they have a score of 30 to 35 seconds, they'll typically have a respiratory rate between maybe eight and 10 breaths per minute."
In terms of how to measure your own breath hold, McKeown recommends this short exercise. Here's what the participants did in Kiesel's study:
- Allow your breathing to settle as usual.
- Take a breath in and out through the nose, and on your exhale, pinch your nose and hold your breath.
- Time the number of seconds it takes until you feel the first desire to breathe. Listen to what your body is telling you and let go—don't try to push yourself too much, which could be dangerous.
Essentially, you're measuring the length of time after exhalation it takes the brain to react to your lack of breath. "The minimum that you should be looking towards is 25 seconds," McKeown explains. "If you're above 25 seconds, you're in a good state in terms of functional breathing. But if you're below 25 seconds, you're more likely to have dysfunctional breathing, and especially if somebody has a score of 10 seconds or 15 seconds."
How to strengthen your breath.
If you received a low score on the breath test, don't panic: There's much you can do to strengthen your respiratory rate.
"No. 1, nose breathe, all the time," says McKeown.
See, breathing through your nose actually allows you to retain more oxygen, as your sinuses release a huge boost of nitric oxide—a molecule that plays an essential role in increasing circulation and delivering oxygen into cells. Whenever you can, breathe through your nose—even when you're sleeping, if you're able.
"No. 2, do all of your physical exercise with the mouth closed," McKeown continues. Now, this does relate back to point No. 1, but it's an important point to emphasize in terms of performance.
"When you do physical exercise with your mouth closed, your muscles are generating carbon dioxide, and carbon dioxide increases in the blood because it cannot leave the body so quickly," he says. "As carbon dioxide increases, you feel an increased air hunger." Once your body adapts to the practice (it takes about four to six weeks, says McKeown), your body should adapt to tolerating a higher pressure of carbon dioxide, "and you'll have less breathlessness during physical exercise."
Finally, McKeown suggests breath-holding exercises—similar to the testing exercise above. "If you are healthy, you're not pregnant, and you've got no serious medical conditions, do some breath holds," he says. "For example, you take a normal breath in and out through your nose and pinch your nose and hold. Then start walking with the breath hold and go into a jog. Keep going until the air hunger is quite strong, and then let go."
He continues, "What that can do is increase carbon dioxide in the blood, and it can help to reduce your sensitivity to the gas. That's something we use a lot with athletes."
According to McKeown, the easiest way to assess your respiratory rate is to track how long you can hold your breath. According to research, if you can hold for more than 25 seconds, you likely have functional breathing patterns. But don't push yourself too hard if that's not the case: There are tons of ways you can strengthen your breathing and reach the threshold.
Jason Wachob is the Founder and Co-CEO of mindbodygreen and the author of Wellth. He has been featured in the New York Times, Entrepreneur, Fast Company, and Vogue, and has a B.A. in history from Columbia University, where he played varsity basketball for four years.