The Importance of Breathing Ernest(ly)

Mary Tweed
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I have a client who has made huge improvements in her Nordic Walking since taking up the activity earlier last year. She has seen many benefits including weight loss, feeling better, more energy and improved moods. However, she still gets very out of breath, which she puts down to a lack of fitness. In fact, her fitness has also progressed, as she now walks a lot faster and further than before, but the problem lies in her shallow breathing. This has limited her from further improvement and so we have been focusing on her breathing in recent classes and suddenly she has begun to climb away from that plateau.

It is worth looking at the importance of breathing and what actually happens when we breathe in relation to Nordic Walking.

As we all know, the air that we breathe in is full of lovely oxygen, which we draw down to our lungs, where diffusion takes place and the oxygen passes into our little red blood cells. The heart then pumps the blood stream around the body delivering oxygen to where it is most needed. Whilst we are exercising, one area that demands a high level of oxygen is in the muscles that are being activated. Muscles contain specialist cells, mitochondira, which convert oxygen to release energy used during aerobic activities, such as Nordic Walking. The aerobic system can last for long periods of time without fatigue and the intensity of the exercise is limited only by how quickly oxygen can be taken to the muscles.

By not filling her lungs with air, my client is not taking in the maximum amount of oxygen of which her lungs are capable and therefore, her heart is having to work extra hard to pump the blood faster around her body in an effort to deliver the small amounts of oxygen she has to the muscles, which are doing their best to work hard. As a result, her heart rate increases faster and she feels out of breath quickly. Recently, we have been focusing on breathing in for 4 steps and out for 4 steps in an attempt to retrain her diaphragm to work smoothly and at full capacity. In doing so, she found that she perceived that she was working less hard (her heart wasn’t beating as fast and her muscles didn’t tire so easily), because she was taking in so much more oxygen with each breath. We decided to test her improvement by attempting a challenging hill, which in the past has required several short rest stops. I am extremely pleased to report that she managed to climb this very steep slope in one go with no stops, which is all due to correct breathing technique.

All to often, we think of other muscles (abdominals, quads, biceps etc.) when we talk of exercise. However, it is important to focus on some of the “hidden” muscles, such as the diaphragm. By switching the focus to these and ensuring that they are being used efficiently, can lead to the biggest improvement in your fitness.

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