Written by: Judit Dobrai
What does it take to live a longer life?
According to the Yale School of Medicine, the seven keys to healthy aging are: “Eat a healthy diet, exercise, get enough sleep, avoid tobacco, manage stress, stimulate your brain and engage socially.”
You may have already heard about these “keys”, they aren’t necessarily ground-breaking and we can easily extend this list ourselves. There’s one more factor however, that is never mentioned, perhaps because it is so obvious.
Are you wondering what it is? Then read on.
“The lungs nourish every part of the body -so your brain and heart function depends on them as well –by sending oxygen throughout. When you learn how to maximise your lung function, you also improve the quality of your life”. From my years spent learning about the human body at the Hungarian Dance Academy, the University of Science, Pilates body schools and with Yamuna Zake this is one of the major things that resonated with me. This is not because it is something new but it made me realise how we can easily take our ability to breathe for granted. Our lungs are working for us in the background every minute of the day without our even having to think about it. Yet most people don’t really know how it feels to breathe fully. Many clients, who come to see me for Pilates to resolve a special body problem (recurring pain or injury), get to realise during our sessions that they are in fact breathing shallowly due to certain muscles restricting the breath from going deeper into the affected areas. This can be taken back to the habit of how the body has been conditioned to breathe (consciously or subconsciously) over the years.
Our current fitness culture is obsessed with pushing the body hard to stay healthy. Intense cardio exercise, however, creates strong musculoskeletal contraction. This causes tightness in the muscles which leads gradually to a lack of space inside the joints, constant compression on the organs and decreased circulation; especially if done incorrectly after sitting in a slumped position all day. Add weights to an already misaligned bone structure and instead of the desired health benefits, all this is going to do is wear the body down faster. Athletes, runners and cyclist believe they have great lung capacity and heart function. The truth very often is quite the opposite. They start breathing heavily with a ribcage that is locked, with very little ability to expand wide, which then becomes rigid with age. A ribcage trained like this won’t allow the lungs to be used to their maximum capacity (that is generally up to 80 percent in healthy individuals and it decreases with age), it deprives the body of the amount of oxygen necessary to fuel the blood.
“Breathing is the first act of life and the last.” – as Joseph Pilates once wrote in his book: Return to Life. This is as true now as it ever was. We need healthy lungs for our lifetime. This phrase might feel overused, but its importance cannot be overstated in the extraordinary and challenging times such as we have now, with the whole world fighting a virus that’s mainly attacking the lungs. We need to care for the body sensibly, in a way that is sustainable and regenerative, instead of wearing it down. In the quest for longevity it is crucial to have a training plan that creates space not compression unlike many of the cardio and fitness workouts currently being offered.
“What is the best way for me to breathe then?”- I get asked this question a lot by people. In fact, I used to be one of them, perhaps you can relate too. There are many ways to breathe. In fact, our emotions have a massive influence on how our breath changes. Think of the “fight or flight response”, how rapid the breath can get when we are scared or feeling stressed or excited as opposed to the joy of slowly inhaling the morning sunshine. Several practices, Yoga or Pilates for example, offer a variety of breathing techniques that can be implemented into our everyday lives to serve different goals. The best answer I was ever given is that we should be able to do all of them.
Everyone can benefit from learning to breathe fully, not only for the positive physiological effects of it, but also to get to know oneself better. It’s not always about figuring out what’s right or wrong rather than changing the habits that no longer work for us. To take a step forward, sometimes all we need to do is blow the dust off the surface. Breathing deeply can allow us to access parts that were hidden from our consciousness before, reawaken our core and inner strength. As soon as we can see what is happening inside we are no longer in it. That’s how awareness works.
Any movement that’s driven by conscious breath is going to be much more powerful and effortless, improving performance in other areas. I would love to help you experience the power of breath.
Explore my virtual classes here.