Fitness and Breathing

Do you feel that you have an abnormal lack of fitness and ability to exercise for your age? 

The Buteyko Method is about good breathing and good health, so it is a useful adjunct to any get fit plan. Good breathing means more than breathing quietly and easily when you are resting. It also means:

• Being able to exercise without asthma or excessive breathlessness.
• Less lactic acid is produced and muscles do not quickly become sore or tired.
• Heart rate doesn't exceed safe margins.

All of these things mean increased speed and improved endurance within a short time.

"My son is a new person since using the Buteyko technique. He is sports mad and now plays rugby, runs, swims, and wins!!! Without breathlessness." Tracey

"Buteyko", as it is commonly known, is a series of exercises and strategies developed by Russian doctor Konstantin Buteyko, which were developed to address the chronic low-grade hyperventilation so often associated with modern living.

Physically people of today are the same as those a few generations ago, but our lifestyle is completely different. Instead of sitting for hours in front of computers, television sets, or at steering wheels, our bodies are designed to move for much of the day, just like our grandparents did. Because we are not as physically active as our ancestors, this places us under an abnormal level of stress, and any type of stress leads to an increase in breathing.

In the same way that the body can become used to eating more food than is necessary, or even healthy, it will adapt to an increase in breathing. And once it has adapted, it is capable of maintaining this new pattern for years, even though it is not good for your health.

The thought that it is possible to breathe more air than is necessary may come as a surprise, as we are often told that deep breathing is good, and that it is necessary to breathe deeply to get rid of all that dirty, stale air that is located in the bottom of the lungs. When attending a Buteyko class these ideas are challenged and found to be contrary to what Dr. Buteyko noted when he began studying breathing and creating his method. For example, breathing more air than is required for any given activity leads to a reduction in oxygen delivery to muscles and other tissues, rather than an over-supply as might be imagined.

This paradoxical fact was discovered more than a hundred years ago and is called the "Bohr effect", after Danish scientist, Christian Bohr, who made the discovery. A classic demonstration of this occurs while blowing up a balloon, when it is easy to become light-headed. This is because less oxygen than normal reaches the brain, in spite of taking very large and deep breaths.

Because oxygen provides muscles and tissues with energy and breathing too much lowers the delivery of this fuel, it means that should you breathe badly, you are more likely to run out of puff, and to create an over-supply of lactic acid that makes muscles tired and sore.

The Buteyko method retrains the breathing centre in the brain to automatically breathe more appropriately both during and after exercise, which means that the heart does not have to work so hard as it would do if the breathing were too much. This means that the Buteyko method is able to assist in lowering heart rate as well as the automatic breathing pattern, and may permit difficult sessions more frequently as recovery time is reduced.

Since we are physically the same as our grandparents, yet most of these people did not have a problem with obesity or chronic conditions such as diabetes, heart disease and asthma, which are so prevalent today, it seems logical that becoming more active helps to better manage these chronic conditions. By doing little physical exercise means that it becomes more difficult to exercise, and it is easy to be caught up in a vicious circle of the less you do, the less you are able to do. Take a few tips from a Buteyko practitioner and see if you can improve your fitness:

If you are just starting an exercise programme then start out small, and always wear suitable clothing and footwear for the activity so that you are comfortable. Perhaps walking on a flat surface could be the best way to begin, and do not go too far. When walking on flat ground is easy, then you can add a hill, or go faster or further.

Never breathe through your mouth when exercising. Instead go a little more slowly, do less, or lift lighter weights while you breathe through your nose. When you start to get short of breath, slow down so that you do not become puffed, and as your fitness increases you will be able to go faster or for longer. If you exercise regularly (three or more times a week) and practise only breathing through the nose, it is estimated that within two weeks you will be back to your usual speed and strength, while still being able to breathe almost all of the time through your nose.

Some of the advantages of nose breathing include keeping your lungs cleaner by not sucking in the minute particles of dust that are always in the air. The air that is being inhaled is not only cleaned, but it is also warmed and moistened by the nose, so the throat and lungs are not being cooled and dried out each time that you breathe. This will result in less dehydration, airways that are more comfortable, as well as allowing extra oxygen into the blood stream so that you will have more stamina. These advantages will allow you to do more strenuous exercise that will improve your fitness over time.

Breathing through your nose reduces the amount of water vapour lost to the atmosphere, but exercise will increase sweating, so remember to drink sufficient water before, during and afterwards so that you do not dehydrate. Sweating also causes a loss of minerals, which we know as salt, and so replacing these with a good quality unprocessed, fully mineralised sea salt is useful in preventing cramp and dehydration.

If you suffer from asthma and regularly take bronchodilator medication in order to exercise, then consider that the basic cause of this condition is said to be inflammation in the airway walls. If you had an inflamed ankle would you take a pain killer to mask the problem and go for a run? Unless you wanted to do further damage to your ankle, this is unlikely. Instead the normal procedure is to take some anti-inflammatory medications, rest the ankle and start a gentle exercise regime until the ankle has recovered. Since it is sensible to deal with an inflamed ankle in this way, it seems ludicrous that anyone would want to take a puff of bronchodilator that masks the asthma problem and go for a run. It seems much more appropriate to take the same approach with inflamed airways as you would with an inflamed ankle, by taking anti-inflammatory medication and starting a gentle exercise programme that does not irritate the airways and cause more damage.

However, if you have asthma, always carry your inhaler with you in case you need to use it, but remember to only use when you need it, rather than taking it routinely. If you were not well enough to exercise without taking the medication, then it would seem that you are not well enough to exercise at the time.

Asthmatic or not, when you feel short of breath during exercise, this is the time to slow down and do not talk or eat because these things will only increase the breathlessness.

There is little point in doing exercise that is going to aggravate chronic conditions, or cause pain and strain, so remember to lift weights that are not too heavy. You want to be able to strengthen muscles, not tear them, and as you get stronger you can increase the weight or the number of repetitions.

Exercising burns calories and naturally this will stimulate the appetite as the body tries to maintain its status quo. Be mindful of what you eat afterwards to ensure a healthy diet that will best suit your aim of weight loss, improved fitness, or simply enhanced wellbeing.

"Buteyko has given me new hope for fitness into old age, with much more controlled breathing. I weigh less and have much more stable energy levels. I no longer fear moderate exercise and my muscles are much more relaxed." Basil