In the extreme world of wilderness survival - think Man vs Wild and all other things Bear Grylls-esque - there’s a rule of thumb known as the ‘Rule of Three’ that prioritises your basic needs to survive a life-or-death scenario.
Put simply, the survival rule of 3 states that you cannot survive longer than:
3 minutes without air
3 hours without shelter
3 days without water
3 weeks without food
Of those 4 essential needs, going without air is the most critical. Air to breathe is the most basic, non-negotiable part of our survival. We can go days without a drink and weeks without food, but our ability to breathe is the foundation of our existence.
Given how critical breathing is, why when people look to make positive change to their health, the vast majority jump straight to eating less, moving more or even popping a pill? Because modern society tells us that they're the primary ways to improve our health.
Don’t get me wrong, improving your diet, increasing the amount of exercise you do and visiting your doctor should definitely be on your list, but when it comes to our health and well-being, our ongoing survival, why do we not also prioritise our breathing?
By not doing so we’re missing out on a key element in the pyramid of optimal health.
What does the pyramid look like?
Different professionals, with their own interests (and agendas), will have their opinions about the 'correct' order, and sure, as a Wim Hof Method Instructor and someone who is passionate about teaching the influence improved breathing can have on our lives, I also have an agenda, but this is how I look at it:
Diet & Nutrition
Movement & Exercise
While each of the elements are important, and they all interact with one another, for me, it all starts with, and is linked by the breath. Read on to find out why...
We breathe between 20,000 - 40,000 times per day. Unlike other systems in the body, we can consciously regulate our breath. We can speed it up, slow it down, breathe in more, or less, breathe in via our nose or mouth or hold our breath. It is a highly accessible tool that can greatly impact our well-being when we get it right.
This is why I like to think of our breathing as the foundation on which to build a stronger, happier and healthier life. When you build a house, you don’t start with the roof, then add the walls before trying to lay the foundation. Building on a weak foundation will limit the capabilities of the structure or create problems down the line, but if the foundation is right, the building is strong.
Here are 3 basic steps to get you started with your breathing:
Become aware of your breath
Consciously control your breath
Learn to train your breath
Read the full article on exercises to build your breathing foundation.
World-renowned sleep expert and neuroscientist Dr. Matthew Walker says that “sleep is the greatest legal performance enhancing drug that most people are probably neglecting” and that “no aspect of our biology is left unscathed by sleep deprivation.” Sleep is serious business and the way we breathe can help or hinder the amount of sleep we get.
This study and this study found that mouth breathing was proven to significantly increase the number of occurrences of snoring and obstructive sleep apnoea (when your breathing stops during sleep) - two big contributors to a poor night’s sleep. Inversely, this study also describes the impact poor sleep has on inhibiting our breathing mechanics and impairing the gas exchange.
It therefore stands to reason that if you improve the way you breathe, your sleep should improve too, and that if you’re looking to improve your sleep, you should also take a look at how you’re breathing.
Breathing tips for better sleep:
Switch to nasal breathing permanently, including while you sleep
Practice breathing softly for twenty minutes before sleep
Sleep on your side or tummy (not back) to help reduce snoring and sleep apnoea (a personal choice - not everyone will agree)
Videos from Dr. Matthew Walker on sleep:
3. DIET & NUTRITION
Chronic over-breathing places the body in a stress-like state. Over time, if left unchecked, this results in the constriction of blood vessels and a reduction in the amount of oxygen being delivered to cells, contributing to many common health issues, including weight gain.
Breathing techniques including nasal breathing and light breath holds, like those outlined in the Oxygen Advantage program, can help return our breathing volume to normal and shift the body out of this fight or flight state and into one of repair and restoration.
In a more direct link, creator of the program, Patrick McKeowan, dedicates an entire chapter of his book to using breath reduction techniques to safely reduce appetite (which largely occurs as a secondary benefit of applying the techniques to remedy asthma, anxiety or snoring), while this study found an interesting link between Qigong breathing and hunger reduction.
Inversely, this study found that there is a clear link for some nutrients and dietary patterns on obstructive lung diseases like asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), although more evidence is needed from intervention studies in humans.
While the direct link between breathing and nutrition is not as strong as with sleep, it makes sense that if you’re looking to improve your health through changes to your diet, de-stressing your body by changing the way you breathe can help you get the most out of those changes.
4. MOVEMENT & EXERCISE
Move 30 minutes a day. Lift weights. Do yoga daily. Take 10,000 steps. Go for a run. Regardless of your choice of exercise, we all know it’s good to move, get the heart rate up and the blood pumping. What a lot of us don’t know is how we can get the most out of our exercise (and further improve our overall health) by changing how we breathe.
If you’re like most people, you breathe through your mouth when exercising, especially when you start to work harder. But new research, particularly in this study, shows that switching to nose breathing can improve health without sacrificing performance (once you’ve spent time adapting to the practice).
Nose breathing essentially helps more oxygen to get to active tissues 1) through the release of nitric oxide, which helps to dilate the blood vessels and 2) by preventing the offloading of too much CO2, which is required to help oxygenate our cells.
Regardless if you’re a casual fitness enthusiast or a professional athlete, switching to nose breathing will benefit not only your workout, but also your well-being by:
Improving the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the body
Helping you remain calm and focused to perform better
Decreasing your stress
Delaying the build up of lactic acid and the onset of fatigue
Aiding your recovery
3 tips to start with nasal breathing during exercise:
Pay attention to how you breathe during your workout, notice the point you switch to mouth-only
Incorporate nose-only breathing into your warm up and cool down
Once you’re more comfortable, add nose breathing into light exercise like a walk, jog or bike ride
It will take some getting used to, but build up slowly and find ways to incorporate it into your existing exercise routine to build a healthy, helpful routine.
More information on the benefits of nasal breathing during exercise:
An article featuring Brian Mackenzie, athlete and founder of the Art of Breath
A video from XPT’s PJ Nestler covering the pros and cons
Dot point article from Ayurvedic practitioner John Douillard
Short term PAIN (discomfort), long term gain
Making positive changes in life can be uncomfortable. Sometimes the progress may seem slow and you’ll probably want to quit. A lot. However, if you focus on building the foundation and get the basics right at the start, you’ll be that much stronger when those tough times hit.
The accessibility of our breath, and it’s connection to, and influence on the other key physiological areas of life, make it an ideal foundation for helping to create positive, lasting change to our health and well-being.