Fitness Factor 3: Respiration

By Roland Pankewich

First there was food, then there was sleep. Now, we breathe. What a dramatic way to introduce the 3rd fitness factor for the month and the last aspect of the basis of our human existence; eat, sleep, breathe. Truth be told this topic was a little bit of an enigma for me when I started thinking about how to prepare for it. How can I do it justice without putting you all to sleep with talk of tidal volume and respiratory quotients? How can I write an article on the most autonomous thing we all innately do; breathe in and breathe out. To my pleasant surprise, one thing immediately stood out for me in learning about respiratory fitness; when done right, it just may be the absolute easiest thing one can do start NOW to improve their health and next to sleep might be the game changer we have all forgotten about. Ready, slow breath in and we shall continue.

The importance of knowing specific details on the topic of respiration is NOT simply tied to things like oxygen saturation of the blood and lung function. Truth be told, if there are no obvious issues and symptoms that show someone has a degree of compromise with their anatomy, we can assume oxygen saturation are likely within normal ranges and gas exchange (oxygen in/carbon dioxide out) are not pathologically problematic. I am more concerned with connecting the dots to the bigger picture of health and focusing on the practical take aways in which encouraging you to prioritize breath-work will yield a better outcome tomorrow for your overall knowledge of the integrated function of the human body. For this reason, we will split this into 3 major categories of focus before we round out the practical takeaways. Doing so my hope is to not simply tell you that breathing is important for your health and tell you how to do it. As health-minded people we need to know WHY breathing positively affects your health in a multitude of ways which stimulate the interest to explore it further and hopefully the staying power to make it a regular tool in your personal health tool kit. Let’s start with the first aspects of improving your respiratory fitness is an essential piece to the health puzzle; Energy Metabolism and super charging your metabolic machinery.

Energy is everything, without it nothing would survive. A phrase taken out of what could be a documentary on the universe that also rings true for the universe inside of us. Think about this for a second. We have approximately 32 TRILLION cells in our body, with each cell containing about 2000 mitochondria on average. My math tells me that is a big number and what do EACH of those little power houses need to function well? Oxygen. The fundamental reason we breath is so that oxygen can accept the final electron within the mitochondrial ATP production process so our food can be turned into energy and the byproducts of said metabolism (carbon dioxide & water) can be generated and processed appropriately. ALL disease is just a complex manifestation of an energy problem gone on too long. So, by saying this we can put the pieces together.

  1. To be healthy we need to have strong metabolic function (energy metabolism)
  2. To have strong energy metabolism we need to carry oxygen to our cells
  3. To carry oxygen to our cells we need to ensure we breathe well

This last one is really a simple concept that has a lot attached to it to start with the practical aspects just yet. To get more of a clear picture we need to merge the first category of energy metabolism with the second category; Autonomic Nervous System Regulation.

The autonomic nervous system is (in my opinion) one of the most important aspects of human physiology to understand when it comes to systemic health. Why you ask? Well, it’s simple, it plays the role of conductor of the behavior of every major organ in the body. It takes signals from the brain and sends them out to organs in a way that ideally is integrative and supportive of optimal health. It is separated into 2 mirrored systems;

Sympathetic (fight, flight, flee) Parasympathetic (rest, recover, digest)

As you can see the overall roles these systems seem to play are opposite, but the reality is that they are integrative in ALL that they do. We need some sympathetic involvement to help our body’s response to input stresses (raising blood pressure when we move from sitting to standing as to not faint) and we need the parasympathetic system to bring our blood pressure back to a healthy normal once we have adjusted to stress. If we look at respiration, each branch of the system has its involvement as follows;

Breathing in: sympathetic influence which elevates heart rate and encourages the movement of oxygen-rich blood to be sent to our tissues.

Breathing out: parasympathetic influence which slows heart rate and allows for a proper rate of exhalation of carbon dioxide to rebalance blood gas levels.

This beautiful yin/yang dance is how we regulate breathing rhythm and maintain things like healthy energy metabolism. See the integration there. There is little consideration we must put forth, however, a small detail we could call a symptom of modern life. How often we do stay within this balance anymore? Any and all stresses push the body into predominance of sympathetic activation which has a cascade of downstream consequences.

  1. Increased heart rate
  2. Increase respiratory rates
  3. Lack of proper breathing mechanics
  4. Imbalanced blood O2/CO2 levels

With the nervous system, sustainment means entrainment as the more we stay sympathetic the less seamlessly we can engage which balances it out and as a result our health suffers. If we become aware of this and try to do something about it we may do so in an intense way and try and force breathing to be deep and unnatural we may encounter one last issue that we may be ignorant of. By trying to help ourselves breathe deeply, we may be further compounding the problem unless we explore the last aspect of respiratory fitness, Gas Exchange

This one is more of an understanding of some fundamentals of what NOT to do if you have been thinking you want to start entraining your respiration. We have all heard that to relax we must breathe deeply; we are even told to “take a breath” when we are agitated as some quick advice we give to people thinking it helps. If we say this to someone and have good intentions it might make them worse, how could this be? Well, it’s quite simple in biochemical essence. We are meant to breathe through our noses as this both warms and filters the air. It also regulates the volume of air flowing in and out which our bodies rely upon to regulate the ratio of oxygen to carbon dioxide in our blood. If we were to change this and say took a breath in through the nose and out through the mouth would something happen? On the surface it just looks like we wanted to force more air out. Well, what just happened was we took in a certain amount of oxygen through the nose and pushed out WAY more carbon dioxide through the mouth. This may not sound like a big deal or might even sound like a good thing but under the surface, your body has other ideas. How we release oxygen is determined by the amount of carbon dioxide in the blood. If we blow out all our CO2 via a large exhalation through the mouth, we have low blood CO2 and now our bodies will hold on to more oxygen. What else happens within the cascade? Our energy metabolism becomes compromised because we are NOT using that oxygen to make ATP, our bodies enter a fight or flight (sympathetic) state, and we feel even more stressed all because we wanted to follow the advice of taking “breathing deeply” without understanding HOW to do it or what may happen if we don’t do so properly.

There is SO much more we could get into with breathing but luckily, we have the book the Thyroid Debacle with a chapter dedicated to this very topic, so I highly suggest you dive into that. To round this out I am going to share what I feel are key concepts that will help you start improving your respiratory fitness tomorrow.

  1. Clean the air in your space
    Use a HEPA filter in your home, vacuum regularly, throw away air fresheners, use cleaning products scene with essential oils, open your windows daily, and keep your HVAC system well maintained. This will keep the need for your nose to filter out as many airborne particles AND stop you from inhaling toxins that you can’t see! What use is working on breathing if you are breathing in crappy air?! 
  1. Make a Point to Practice Mindful Breathing
    The process of breathing in and out is autonomous and as such will happen if you think about it or not which is great for not passing out. However, if your current breathing rhythm is not ideal, changing it takes conscious work. That is why before learning how to modify your breathing you need to commit to the mental process of doing so or else like many other health practices it will be a fly-by-night thing. It must be a commitment to change that moves from a behavior into a habit so then no matter what you are doing, it will become more of your default way of breathing. You may find yourself watching a movie and involuntarily breathing through your diaphragm having never done that before!
  1. Check Your Respiratory Fitness
    Most people would be shocked to figure out how poorly their body oxygenated itself. Luckily you can get a sense of how long you can stretch a single breath, here’s how. Upon taking a small exhalation, take a normal inhalation through your nose and pinch it as you start a timer. Hold your breath until you get the FIRST inclination to breathe, not to where you are flailing to hold your breath as long as you can. Your goal should be 40sec or more which I found myself to be shy of the first time I tried it. If you are below 20sec you have some work to do. 
  1. Begin you Training
    This part is where I don’t have specific guidance for you because there isn’t one way to improve your respiratory fitness. What I can say is that there are some great starting points out there like; box breathing, meditation-style breathing, yoga, or possibly hiring a breath work coach if that is appropriate. What I can say is that when you are doing dedicated practice, first set your environment to where your nervous system is able to relax, ALWAYS breathing in and out through your nose, breathe with intention to breathe into your belly and diaphragm (not your chest), and when possible, extend the out breath long and slow. If you can get to the point where you are taking 6-10 breaths per minute, you’re making great progress. Breathe well my friends and see you all next month!
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