Breathing might seem like a pretty natural activity, and for most people it is. But if you suffer from a condition that impacts your lungs or airway, such as asthma or COPD, your body may not be able to properly move air in and out of our lungs. Over time that means there is less room for fresh oxygen, causing you to use muscles in your back, neck, and chest to try and get enough air.
The feeling of being short of breath can be unnerving. Fortunately, there are methods available that can help you control breathing and train your body to breathe better.
This kind of training is often done by respiratory therapists or physical therapists during pulmonary rehabilitation. These exercises can help control breathing and the anxiety that often comes with loss of breath. Over time, these techniques will allow you to focus on breathing, rather than on your anxiety about not being able to breathe.
Pursed-Lips and Belly Breathing
Pursed-lips breathing is a common exercise that often leads to success. It’s all about breathing against resistance—you breathe in quickly through your nose as if smelling a flower, for about two seconds; then you breathe out slowly through your mouth, keeping your lips puckered the entire time.
Puckering provides resistance to the airflow, keeping your airways open longer than they would be if you breathe out too quickly. You want the breathing out to last at least three times as long as breathing in, so count to six as you exhale. Repeat these same steps continuously until you’ve got your breathing under control.
You can also combine this technique with belly breathing to help train your diaphragm muscle to work correctly in bringing enough air in and out of your body. Keep one hand on your belly while you breathe in deeply through your nose, then use your hand to gently push the air out of your abdomen while you exhale.
Breathing Through Exercise
Breathing while exercising can be an effective tool for controlling your breath, but before you attempt this technique, be sure to speak to your doctor about the exercise to make sure your body can handle it, especially if you have COPD or another breathing condition that may get worse during strenuous exercise.
Learning to match your breathing to a specific activity can be helpful in controlling your breath. If you’re doing an activity with steps, for example, practice breathing in on certain steps and out on others. Or match your breathing to weightlifting activities, breathing out as you lift the weight and in as you lower it. Start out slowly and work your way up, and always consult your physician if you use oxygen to learn how to properly incorporate that into a workout.
People who struggle with COPD or other breathing issues may have a lot of extra mucus. A controlled cough (not the kind of you would have when you get a cold) can actually be helpful—a cough that comes from deep within the lungs can provide the force needed to loosen up thick mucus and remove it from the airways.
While sitting with your arms folded, breathe in slowly through your nose. Use your arms to put pressure on your stomach and cough two or three times through a partly open mouth, using short and sharp coughs. Then breathe back in slowly, and sniff or spit out the mucus to prevent it from moving back down the airway.
When to Do Breathing Exercises
Breathing exercises can be done at any time, and they can be of help with basic daily activities. However, the time to start using breathing exercises is not when you feel anxious and short of breath. You should practice these exercises when you are breathing normally and not try them for the first time when you experience shortness of breath. If you have asthma, COPD or another breathing condition and it worsens, seek immediate medical attention.
“Techniques to Help You Breathe Easier.” WebMD.
“Breathing Exercises.” American Lung Association.