Autumn Fitness: Leither 69


Posted by in October's Magazine

How many times a minute do you breathe? I bet you don’t know. It’s something we do day in day out without thinking. We have to, but why exactly?

Breathing is the body’s way of ridding itself of waste, aka carbon dioxide, and to take in fuel, aka oxygen. Breathing is something we do unconsciously; it’s hard wired into our system by signals from the nervous system to the diaphragm – the big sheet of muscle that horizontally divides the rib cage. As the diaphragm contracts, the space in the chest cavity expands and air goes rushing in. Air is made up of about 20% oxygen, which is absorbed into the blood stream through the tiny finger-like alveoli in the lungs. Oxygen jumps onto a haemoglobin ‘taxi’ in the blood and is pumped by the heart to the far reaches of the body, where it is then used as fuel to convert into energy. If you think of how oxygen helps a fire burn, you get the general idea. So without oxygen, the body cannot function. Actually most of the body may be OK for a while without oxygen, but the brain would die. A good argument for thinking about your breathing!

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The rate of breathing is dictated by the requirement of the body. As you exercise, your whole body moves and therefore requires more fuel (and therefore oxygen), so your breathing rate increases accordingly. Clever eh? Your body also produces more carbon dioxide as a by-product of producing energy, which needs to be carted away and back to the lungs to be exhaled. When you sleep, your breathing slows down. It all makes a lot of sense.

So I ask you, why is more emphasis not placed on learning how to breathe effectively to help your body function better? Why are we not taught this at school? One of the first things I do with new personal training clients is to strap a heart rate monitor on them. This (fairly logically) measures heart rate and it’s quite fascinating to watch how heart rate increases as exercise intensity increases. The fitter you are, the more effectively you use the air you breathe in. Firstly, your lung capacity increases so you can breathe in more air in one breath, and secondly, the stronger your heart (cardiac muscle) is, the more effectively you pump blood around the body.

Therefore the fitter you are, the lower your resting heart rate. Which means your heart doesn’t need to pump as many times to do the same amount of work. There are many things that can put your heart rate up, including going up a hill (more effort), or into the wind (very Edinburgh), drinking caffeine (a stimulant), a cold or fever (as your body is already working hard to fight the infection), a hangover (your body ridding itself of toxins) or smoking (as the lungs don’t work so well in transferring oxygen). Also folk with high blood pressure tend to have a higher heart rate as their heart works less effectively, especially if blood vessels are hardened or clogged with fatty deposits.

Daft Punk song
So how can you breathe more effectively? You may think it’s completely daft when I recommend that you practise breathing. It sounds like the beginning of a rubbish ‘blonde joke’, but it’s true. If you’re feeling a little stressed, or out of breath walking up Leith Walk, practise taking in some deep breaths. Do this by thinking about expanding your rib cage, rather than gasping. What you will be effectively doing is delivering more oxygen as fuel to your body, which will in turn make your body work better, faster, stronger – just like the Daft Punk song.

Breathing correctly is not only important in energetic exercise, but also when stretching. Muscle fibres actually need oxygen to lengthen, which is why breathing is such an important aspect of yoga. If you think about it hard enough, you will also figure out that, as your brain requires oxygen to function, getting more oxygen in will ‘clear your head’ and help with difficult problems. So next time you’re faced with an annoying work problem, or writer’s block, leap up from your desk and escape for a fast walk or a bit of a jog outdoors, get the oxygen in and make yourself even smarter!

Air, food and water – the things we need to live. But it’s funny how little we think about them. By the way, you breathe on average 12 times a minute.

Illustration: Ian Kinghorn

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