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Understanding the Essential Role of Deep Breathing in Exercise

Former certified fitness professional who remains an active exercise ambassador.

Deep breathing: inhale, exhale.

Deep breathing: inhale, exhale.

Are Americans Shallow?

The Europeans state that Americans are shallow breathers. While they may also truncate this statement and simply state that "Americans are shallow," the real truth that is undeniable: Americans don't know how to breathe properly.

One item that is clear in all of my fitness classes is my constant mantra in each and every class about deep breathing. Why? Because deep breathing is critical. Not only should you be working on your lung capacity but you also should be exhaling to literally clean your blood cells. Exhalation has been shown in research to actually clean the blood cells! Both of these facts mean we need to learn how to breathe deeply.

What Is Diaphragmatic Breathing?

Breathing is the only way we can intake oxygen and remove carbon dioxide from our bodies. The process of this exchange occurs in what is called the alveoli.

"The alveoli are tiny air sacs within the lungs where the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide takes place."

Diaphragmatic breathing is deep breathing all the way through to the diaphragm. Also called abdominal breathing, some call it belly breathing. Essentially, diaphragmatic breathing is engaging your diaphragm rather than taking shallow breaths at the top of your lungs. With diaphragmatic breathing, you will feel your abs or stomach muscles move.

For vocalists, diaphragmatic breathing is often called power breathing. This is the source for being able to project their voices, whether singing or speaking. The power is in the expansion of the lungs all the way through to engaging the diaphragm. The difference between the two types of breathing may be subtle but very critical to the exchange of oxygen into our systems.

Diaphragmatic breathing is often used in therapy and relaxation including yoga and meditations. In many ways, it is another range of motion for the body, only this time the stretching is the lungs rather than a group of muscle tissue.

Deep breathing

Deep breathing

A Closer Look at Breath

A quick reference to Wikipedia details what is actually exchanged:

"The air we inhale is roughly 78% by volume nitrogen, 21% oxygen, 0.96% argon and 0.04% carbon dioxide, helium, water, and other gases.

The permanent gases in the gas we exhale are roughly 4% to 5% more carbon dioxide and 4% to 5% less oxygen than was inhaled. Additionally, vapors and trace gases are present: 5% water vapor, several parts per million (ppm) of hydrogen and carbon monoxide, 1 part per million (ppm) of ammonia, and less than 1 ppm of acetone, methanol, ethanol (unless ethanol has been ingested, in which case much higher concentrations would occur in the breath, cf. Breathalyzer) and other volatile organic compounds.

The exact amount of exhaled oxygen and carbon dioxide varies according to the fitness, energy expenditure, and diet of that particular person."

Yoga Deep Breathing Techniques

Still believe I am full of hot air? Don't trust me, trust Joseph Pilates, who included deep breathing as one of the six principles; trust the bodybuilders who build muscle; and trust the yoga instructor.

Interestingly, one of the first uses of deep breathing was in strength training. The form is critical. However, proper breathing and exhaling with the exertion are just as critical as proper form. The goal is to increase the muscle size and the research has proven the muscle demands oxygen.

Exercise professionals across the board, from Pilates to yoga to bodybuilding, know the value of the lungs to the human body. We must train our muscles including our heart and our lungs too!

Who Needs Deep Breathing or Power Breathing?

Every single living human being. Remember, it is the oxygen exchange that expels the carbon dioxide and cleanses it. On a more practical level, here are the direct benefits for different occupations and avocations:

  • Public speakers benefit by having complete control of their breath thus allowing them to speak fully with poise and self-confidence.
  • Singers and voice-over artists benefit from control of their breath in not only avoiding kicking a word but also serving to eliminate pauses and provide proper emphasis including loudness and vocal tone.
  • All athletes benefit from greater lung power.
  • Managers benefit from greater stress control.
  • Seniors benefit from greater endurance especially notable in taking the stairs or tackling steep inclines. This too, may, in turn, prevent injuries from falls.

Resistance Training and Proper Breathing

Proper breathing techniques are essential when training. Never hold your breath. Inhale at the beginning of the lift and exhale during the release of each weight.

Aerobics and Target Toning Demands Both The Heart and Lungs

If you are using your heart as you do in all cardio and even resistance exercises, the partner organ to your heart, of course, is your lungs. Breathe, consciously, breathe in through your nose, and exhale through your mouth.

The Exhale Is Your Cleansing

When you exhale, you are cleansing your body. Think of a vacuum cleaner and blowing all of the bad elements out.

Deep Breathing Benefits

Deep Breathing Benefits

3 Great Tips on Exhaling

  1. Exhaling: When you exhale it should be through your mouth.
  2. Exhale twice as long as you inhale. Count and you breathe in and out. Start with a count of 2:4, inhale for 2, exhale for 4; move up to an inhale of 3 and exhale of double that—a count of 6.
  3. Exhale during exertion—the 2 EEs. This is important in target toning and bodybuilding. I remember it by visualizing two "ee"s together.

True Benefits of Deep Breathing

Deep breathing is great for stress relief and all of us are stressed. Although I did have a wonderful client who once confided to me that life for her in retirement was simply wonderful, and she hoped someday I would retire and also be completely stress-free. Do people like this really exist? She must be one in a 100 billion!

Another benefit is of course our lungs are an organ. If you exercise, if you consciously choose to breathe deeply whether you are performing either aerobic or anaerobic exercises, you will increase your lung capacity.

One of the best compliments I have ever received as a fitness instructor (keep in mind, I am teased heavily by my group of clients for my breathing mantras) was from a lady who has taken water aerobics for over two decades. She stated that she started the deep breathing and within two weeks of my class, she noticed a difference. She stated it was especially evident for her when she was climbing stairs in her house. I was thrilled so therefore, I continue with my constant mantra of "Breathe through the nose…out through the mouth."

Visualize Deep Breathing

Imagine breathing all the way down to your "diaphragm" (see the above image which showcases the diaphragm in your body). Your diaphragm is just under your lungs. Your goal is to completely fill your lungs, breathe deeply through your nose, hold and then exhale through your mouth.

The abdominal muscles protect the spine and act like a supportive corset for our entire trunk. Contracting your abdomen builds muscles but also gives us that protective support that we need for our precious spine. Imagine a full deep breath, visualize lengthening the spine with the breath.

Breathing Affects Your State of Mind

If you are unflappable, you are in a state of mind with complete self-confidence. During my communications classes, the very first item I instruct my students is the winning item for business and trial attorneys is that their state of mind is unflappable. You cannot be a shallow breather IF you are self-confident.

Deep Breathing

Deep Breathing

Exercise for Diaphragmatic Breathing

This exercise will help you feel the lateral expansion of the ribcage with the breath:

  1. Wrap about 3 feet of an exercise band around the lower part of your ribcage. You can also use a length of elastic or just wrap your hands around your ribcage.
  2. Hold the band closed in front of your chest.
  3. Inhale: Let the breath travel down your spine and expand into your back and sides so you feel the band is stretched, side and back, by your breath.

Next: Practice breathing fully with the Pilate's Fundamentals set.

While lateral breathing is the technique to use when you want to keep your abs in during an inhale, we are talking about training the abs here. We don't want to have our abs contracted all the time.

Diaphragmatic breathing with a natural extension of the belly on an inhale is still the healthiest way to breathe regularly.

Breathing very fully, taking advantage of every breath cycle to draw in lots of fresh air and get rid of every bit of stale air. We want to oxygenate our blood, get our circulation going, and get the rejuvenating qualities that a deep breath delivers.

In Pilates, the breath is a foundation. In strength training, deep breathing is fundamental. So too, for our exercise program, we must be encouraged and reminded to breathe deeply.

We should be using our breath to initiate and support our exercise movements.

The Myth of Fat Loss and Breathing

This is a pure myth. You may hear it from giant celebrities but they are making noise. There are no known clinical studies to prove this. If you consider deep breathing a stress relief and you associate food with stress relief then you may have something but fat loss is simply diet and exercise.

There is no magical method other than hard work for fat loss. Additionally, just maintaining your weight is a lot of hard work. I often say it is not a daily challenge, it is a challenge posed to us each hourly!

Breathing Tools and Pulmonary Fun

As a reader in the comments detailed, there might be more exercises and more tools available. A couple of items came up and are provided below:

  1. Pulmonary Harmonica: The pulmonary harmonica is something that I had never heard of before.
  2. Volumetric: Measures exhale and inhale physical abilities. The volumetric that I was tested upon and trained in 1976 at Mayo Clinic was actually in retrospect (isn't everything romantic in retrospect?!) more fun with multiple ping bong balls.
  3. New World of Pulmonary Exercise Fun: Imagine what we could do today with apps and technology. We could do an arm wrestle but with our lungs! So who really has the hottest air to offer!? That would make deep breathing more of a game than an exercise that is good for our body and our mind!
Device to measure breathing, a volumetric

Device to measure breathing, a volumetric

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2010 Kelly A Burnett


Kelly A Burnett (author) from United States on January 30, 2015:

Hi Deandra,

Deep breathing has always been essential to the health of mind and body. From Yoga to Pilates to Strength Building - it all returns to deep breathing and we thought only the swimmers knew this!

Deandra on January 24, 2015:

Kudos to you! I hadn't thugoht of that!

Kelly A Burnett (author) from United States on January 30, 2014:

Beautiful quote - "the mind is king of the body, but the breath is king of the mind." - love that - thank you so much for sharing. Yoga is a great exercise program and it always incorporates deep breathing - unlike the other fitness disciplines. There is so much we can learn from the practices of yoga. Thank you so much for contributing. I believe Yoga has allot of room for growth and further understanding for the health of our future.

Kelly A Burnett (author) from United States on January 30, 2014:

Mary Lou Keller,

Until I started researching this hub, I had never heard of this before. To have an instrument that helps our health is important. Sadly, we don't celebrate the exercise of breathing.

When I was teaching fitness, the instructors and my clients laughed at me for promoting deep breathing and THEN they started seeing results! I am not a student or an instructor, I love the research and find it especially rewarding to pull all the pieces together. It give me a special joy to have this recognized so I sincerely appreciate your kind remarks. Health is more than just nutrition and exercise, it is also about how we breath and also our posture. We must learn to take a holistic view of our health, for I believe deep breathing is more than just stress relief, it is essential to circulation and overall health. I don't believe that deep breathing will help with weight loss unless it is a consciousness that is awakened of the importance of the strength of our body. When we are running, when we are lifting weights, we as instructors must include the lungs and what you call so aptly the "specially tuned low notes" that vibrate our lungs and sinuses.

Mary Lou Keller on January 22, 2014:

Thank you for mentioning the Pulmonica on your hub page. You give such a great description of deep breathing that we will be sharing the hub on our blog on The pulmonary harmonica has two major benefits, it promotes deep belly breathing against resistance that strengthens the muscles around the lungs, and the specially tuned low notes vibrate the lungs and sinuses to help loosen congestion and make breathing easier. Plus, we've tuned it so it never sounds bad, unlike most harmonicas that are designed for musicians. The low chords are meditative and soothing and can be enjoyed by anyone. The Pulmonica is one of the worlds finest instruments, handmade in Germany, and some musicians and singers are using it to warm up before performing. This unusual device was invented for a family member with emphysema, and we hope it will help people around the world breathe better. Thanks for sharing our passion for better breathing!

YogaKat from Oahu Hawaii on December 10, 2013:

"The mind is king of the body, but the breath is king of the mind." BKS Iyengar Thanks for all the detailed scientific info. I open every yoga class I teach with several minutes of focused breathing. In my own life I have used my breath to meditate, run long distances at a steady pace, and reduce/stabilize pain during childbirth(twice). I mention these few, but for me my breath is a connection to my deeper self and I am still exploring that connection. Very informative - thanks!

skysoldier123 on November 06, 2013:

Thank you so much. Yes, any information will be much appreciated.

Kelly A Burnett (author) from United States on November 05, 2013:

Hi Sky Soldier123,

Fascinating - thank you so much for sharing! There is a therapy tool that actually is used by health professionals for seeing visually how high you can elevate I believe ping pong balls. I will do some research and see if I can find that small item. This was very strenuous when I was recovering from my open heart surgery back in 1976 but today I would enjoy the item more as a challenge to see if I was improving. I am sure there is something more sophisticated today. If I locate something I will add it here and contact you.

You make an important point, these types of exercises can only help extend your breathing and lung capacity.

Best of luck to you and your family.

skysoldier123 on October 27, 2013:

Hello & thank you for this information! I've had pleural scarring for almost 40 years and it has now become pretty scary! But using deep breathing exercises/lung expansion techniques really seem to help. Any further breathing/lung exercise recommendations? What I especially like is that none of the techniques would seem to have any adverse effects even if they don't specifically benefit me. Thanks again,

Kelly A Burnett (author) from United States on January 03, 2013:

Deep breathing is critical for rest, relaxation and for exercise.

The sales pitches they have had with loosing weight I am completely against. Let's not oversell something that is good for us and harm our profession.

When I taught group fitness, my clients and my fellow instructors thought I was crazy shouting to breath deeply. I detailed that the exhale actually cleans our body - there is scientific proof. Shortly a client who had attended for decades confided she though I was crazy too but then when she took the stairs she noticed a remarkable difference. After that word must have spread beause I heard my common mantra repeated by other instructors - imitation is the best form of flattery.

Thank you so much for sharing!

Rokas from Lancaster on January 03, 2013:

Hi there,

Loved the hub, it reminded me of the benefits of deep breathing. Very informative and well formatted.

However, I got disappointed by the last video explaining the amazing process of respiration is emphasized to be the art of God's creation, which is completely against my beliefs. The art of Evoliution it is, the scientifically proofed fact.

In overall, great hub, enjoyed it!

Kelly Kline Burnett from Madison, Wisconsin on November 18, 2010:


We think of deep breathing just for stress and yoga but it is for muscles and for cleansing - the exhale actually cleans. The human body is a miracle.

sherrylou57 from Riverside on November 18, 2010:

I love this hub. Thank you for sharing this with us!

Cristopher Chasse from Boston on July 26, 2010:

Excellent information. Never thought of this before.

Kelly Kline Burnett from Madison, Wisconsin on July 09, 2010:


You made me smile - "concur on chocolate and coffee". Thank you so much! I hope everyone takes advantage of the simple exercise of breathing deep - all we need is the knowledge and to remind ourselves.

billyaustindillon on July 09, 2010:

Great hub - I try and incorporate extra breathing exercise when I am doing either interval training or hiking - very significant with that oxygen boost. I concur on the chocolate and coffee :)

Kelly Kline Burnett from Madison, Wisconsin on July 09, 2010:

Tusitaia Tom,

You make a great point, life is way to rich not to take in its many amenities.

When I teach group exercise and we are kicking, I ask my clients to envision kicking their bad habits away. Of course, I preface that all beans are exempt - my coffee beans and my chocolate!

Thank you for stopping by. We needed a touch of reality and balance.

Tom Ware from Sydney, Australia on July 08, 2010:

The great playwright, George Bernard Shaw, who lived to well over ninety years of age, once quipped: "Never stand when you can sit. Never sit when you can lie down." Asked if he exercised, he said "I get my exercise acting as a pall-bearer for those of my friends who regularly exercise."

I kid,of course. Not so much with GBS's remarks but with my own lifestyle. I'm seventy-four, still pretty fit and healthy. Have 'pumped iron' at gyms since I was twenty and been into Hatha Yoga stretching since around thirty-five. Deep breathing. Yes, I do agree with the concepts presented here. But don't become too fitness-oriented. Don't let it run your life. A few beers, the leisurely coffee, chocolates, and nice slice of cake, these things make for a much more rounded and enjoyable life. Just keep things in balance.

Kelly Kline Burnett from Madison, Wisconsin on July 08, 2010:


Thank you very much! Deep breathing I feel is important to our health.

twogroce on July 07, 2010:

Nice Hub, Great Job. Voting this one UP!!