Slow your breath, improve your health!

Slow breathing techniques have been shown to increase feelings of relaxation while decreasing depression, anxiety, and anger.

A person on a mountain.
Photo: Unsplash/Daniel Mingook Kim.

Take a moment to notice your breath in this present moment. Feel the fresh air come in  through your nose, travel down into your lungs, sending new oxygen into your bloodstream, and feel the old, stale air come back up and out through your mouth as you exhale. How do you feel?

Congratulations, you’ve just taken your first step towards relaxation!

Benefits of slow breathing on your health

Our breath is always with us and plays an important role in our well-being, but we rarely pay it the attention and respect it deserves. A review of evidence from health experts shows that slowing down our breathing can benefit us in many ways. Slow breathing techniques have been linked to increased feelings of relaxation, comfort, pleasantness, and alertness while also decreasing feelings of anxiety, depression, anger and confusion.

How slow breathing affects your body

A separate study concluded that slow breathing techniques lead to these benefits by activating our parasympathetic nervous system. This system is responsible for our “rest and digest” response, which slows our pulse and tightens airway muscles to give our heart and lungs a well-deserved break. There are many different types of breathing strategies that can lead to the activation of this relaxation response.

Slow breathing strategies you can try

One of the most popular breathing techniques we offer in some of our mindfulness programs is called “box breathing” (sometimes also referred to as “four-square breathing.”) With this breathing technique, you begin by counting to four as you inhale, hold your breath for four seconds, exhale for four seconds, hold your breath for four seconds again, and repeat the cycle. If four seconds doesn’t feel comfortable for you, you can always adjust the amount of time.

Some strategies encourage you to take longer to exhale than inhale. One popular strategy, called “4-7-8 breathing,” suggests inhaling for four seconds and holding your breath for seven seconds before finally exhaling for eight seconds. If this is comfortable for you, great! However, recent research has found that there is likely little difference in health outcomes between strategies that spend equal time inhaling and exhaling and strategies with longer exhalation times. The most important thing is to practice different techniques and find whatever is the most comfortable for you!

MSU Extension programs and resources that can help

Michigan State University Extension offers many programs that teach relaxation strategies, including breathing techniques. Some of these programs include Stress Less with Mindfulness, RELAX: Alternatives to Anger, Tai Chi for Arthritis and Falls Prevention, Sleep Education for Everyone Program (SLEEP), and a variety of mindfulness topics that can be found on our Mindfulness for Better Living page.

If you are interested in learning more or signing up for one of our free, evidence-based programs, we encourage you to fill out an online health program referral form.

For additional information on the benefits of belly breathing, we encourage you to read this article by Abigail Cudney, an MSU Extension health educator: “Begin with breathing for improved health and wellness.” You can also listen to a guided breathing exercise led by Dr. Roxane Chan, called Breathing With Trust and Gratitude to Find Balance.

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