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Is Breath Work Overrated?

myofascial stretching

I’ll be honest, for a long time I fought the idea of doing any specific breath work. A lot of it had to do with how it was promoted in the industry. It seemed like everyone was claiming that 5 minutes of specific breath work would solve LITERALLY all your problems. When I heard stuff like that (sometimes this was even being espoused by reputable coaches), I get quite cynical.

I don’t believe ANYTHING fixes EVERYTHING. That is because there are often many reasons people could be having issues with something. For example, if we look at chronic pain, this could actually be structural, we could have motor control issues of muscles, we could have life stressors that are impacting our pain, and so forth. So, how in the world could any one thing solve everything?

breath work

If we use the wrong tool for the job or don’t even know what tool we should be using we can spend a lot of time, money, and energy with ineffective strategies that can make things worse!

Well, let me save you the suspense, it doesn’t. For example this 2009 study looked a people without and those with low back pain during rest and then doing small motor control drills. What did they find?

“At rest, no significant differences were found between the breathing pattern of patients and healthy subjects. In contrast, significantly more altered breathing patterns were observed in chronic LBP-patients during motor control tests. Changes in breathing pattern during motor control tests were not related to pain severity, but were related to motor control dysfunction.”

This wasn’t any type of intense exercise like squatting, hinging, pushing, or pulling as you see above. Very foundational movement challenged those with chronic low back pain.

In other words, breath didn’t become altered in people with low back pain UNTIL they started to create some specific movement. The breath alteration seems to be a protective mechanism the body would use when unable to control small movements. It is a true chicken or the egg scenario, but there are times the pain is the egg and the breath is the chicken.

HOWEVER, if we can look at something as a valuable tool, we may see how it can play an important role in what we do to help ourselves and others.

Chronic Pain, Depression, and Stress

I’m going to attempt to break down a rather complex topic in simple ways. If you want to go into great detail on this there are plenty of research studies you can review. I say this because I am definitely simplifying something quite elaborate.

If we look at some of the biggest health issues in our society today, they may be largely all interrelated. Many fitness pros, for example, believe that obesity is the greatest health risk in our society. However, few specific strategies to help fight obesity have proven to be very effective at all. That is because obesity is multi-factorial.

Meaning it can be impacted by socioeconomic issues, childhood trauma events, chronic pain levels, depression, and much more. I think it would be rare to find someone who desires to be obese both from the health and sociological impact of being so, yet, roughly two out of three U.S. adults are overweight or obese (69 percent) and one out of three are obese (36 percent, Harvard School of Public Health).

disordered eating

It is WAY too simple to try to make some irrational judgement like “oh people are just lazy”, when we know there are SO many variables at play. We can look to see if one issue is related to another common large societal problem. Chronic pain, for example, impacts 20-30% of our society and comes with great personal cost as well as societal. Yet, we don’t have great solutions to chronic pain either!

That is because chronic pain is too multi-factorial as well as subjective to the individual. It shouldn’t be surprising to find out that around 80% of people with chronic pain ALSO have depression (we are getting there don’t worry). Interestingly enough, Brian Distelberg, PhD, MA, Director of the Behavioral Health Institute at Loma Linda University Health, says pain and stress are interrelated. ​

“When someone experiences pain, the body releases anxiety and stress hormones. This can come in handy if a person is injured or in a situation where they need to get out,” Distelberg says. “However, when we look at an individual who is constantly experiencing pain, then their body is also constantly producing these toxic hormones as well. Stress isn’t an intangible thing — it’s a damaging chemical to the body when prolonged.

Research has shown that individuals who are under this constant state of stress experience a decrease or damage of cognitive function to the brain, lowered IQ, and, as a result of the chemical response, the pain becomes more pronounced. ​More pain, more stress. More stress, more pain.”

Guess what is also impacted by stress? If you are thinking obesity you are correct!

In fact, Dr. Carnell from John Hopkins University found, “…obese individuals showed greater activation of the orbitofrontal cortex, a brain reward region, after the stress test. We also found evidence for links between the subjective stress experienced and brain responses in both groups. For example, lean individuals who reported higher stress following the test showed lower activation of the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, a key brain area for cognitive control.”

How our brains are functioning can influence our response to pain, our reaction to food, our desire to turn to food to battle stress, and so forth. A fascinating 2008 research paper explains…

“The morbidity and mortality due to stress- related illness is alarming. Emotional stress is a major contributing factor to the six leading causes of death in the United States: cancer, coronary heart disease, accidental injuries, respiratory disorders, cirrhosis of the liver and suicide. According to statistics from Meridian Stress Management Consultancy in the U.K, almost 180,000 people in the U.K die each year from some form of stress- related illness. The Centre for Disease Control and Prevention of the United States estimates that stress account about 75% of all doctors visit.”

This was 12 years before we had this small thing called a global pandemic. It was also one year BEFORE the “like” button was added on Facebook which has actually been correlated with the start of social media being quite damaging to our mental health. That means those crazy numbers above could be LOW to today’s standards.

Wow! This was a LONG, but hopefully valuable trip to getting to why I think breathing can be an incredible tool for people. We want to empower people to take control of their health and well being. Sure, emotional therapy, medications, and other things may be valuable, but the simplest way to start a lot of people that costs nothing and has no side effects is breath work.

Why is breathing so effective? Well Dr. Seppälä of Yale, Dr. Bradley of University of Michigan, and Dr. Goldstein of Harvard Medical School explain it better than I can…

“Research shows that different emotions are associated with different forms of breathing, and so changing how we breathe can change how we feel. For example, when you feel joy, your breathing will be regular, deep and slow. If you feel anxious or angry, your breathing will be irregular, short, fast, and shallow. When you follow breathing patterns associated with different emotions, you’ll actually begin to feel those corresponding emotions.

How does this work? Changing the rhythm of your breath can signal relaxation, slowing your heart rate and stimulating the vagus nerve, which runs from the brain stem to the abdomen, and is part of the parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for the body’s “rest and digest” activities (in contrast to the sympathetic nervous system, which regulates many of our “fight or flight” responses). Triggering your parasympathetic nervous system helps you start to calm down. You feel better. And your ability to think rationally returns.

To get an idea of how breathing can calm you down, try changing the ratio of your inhale to exhale. This approach is one of several common practices that use breathing to reduce stress. When you inhale, your heart rate speeds up. When you exhale, it slows down. Breathing in for a count of four and out for a count of eight for just a few minutes can start to calm your nervous system. Remember: when you feel agitated, lengthen your exhales.”

breath work

The Breath Perfectionist

With all that said, I think breath work can have a very positive role in our health care and even training. However, inevitably there are those that will claim they have the RIGHT way to breathe. While I do agree there are better strategies in breathing than others, I think overall the fitness industry hasn’t done a great job of making a simple, progressive, and most importantly useful system for most people. Here are some keys you will want to remember and employ.

Don’t miss the final days of 30% off our NEW Myofascial Integrated Movement program where we discuss these ideas and how to even apply them to movement. Use code “mim” HERE