How to make slow breathing a daily habit for life in 4 steps.
“The doctor wants to talk to you about the blood test,” said the nurse worryingly. As I was sitting in the waiting room I felt close to having a panic attack. Heightened anxiety which I thought had long gone was creeping back in. What nasty disease have they found during this regular medical checkup? That’s when I thought about using a box breathing exercise used by the Navy Seals to calm down and get focused before a mission. I tried the recommended breathing pattern of inhaling/holding breath/exhaling/holding breath. In about 5 min I started to feel better. “How bad could it be? The previous checkup a year ago gave me an All Ok. There is probably a mistake with this blood test, ” I thought to myself. Surely enough it was a mistake. A repeat blood test was fine. This experience with a box breathing exercise however made me explore slow breathing in more detail.
Slow breathing is taking the world by storm. In a way it is similar to the explosion of interest in meditation around 10 years ago. Is it a hype destined to pass in a year or so? Or does it really do wonders for our health and longevity? Should we make it a part of our daily routine?
Slow breathing means reducing the rate of breath from usual 12–20 breaths per minute to 5–7. This brings two primary benefits.
- It activates a parasympathetic nervous system which is responsible for ‘rest and digest behaviour’. We become calmer. This effect can be objectively measured with HRV (heart rate variability). Or, less precisely, with changes in our pulse. More on this below.
- It raises the level of CO2 (carbon dioxide) in the blood and ultimately leads to a better O2 (oxygen) absorption. It helps to address some respiratory disorders. Our brains get more O2 and we start thinking more clearly. Scientists also hypothesize that slower breathing decreases oxidative stress in our bodies. Hence, increasing our life span.
Here are the three interesting facts which I have come across studying this subject. You can judge for yourself if they are convincing enough to start practicing slow breathing.
- Conclusion from a recent scientific paper on this topic: “Controlled, slow breathing appears to be an effective means of maximising HRV and preserving autonomic function, both of which have been associated with decreased mortality in pathological states and longevity in the general population” . In plain English: Slow breathing makes you calmer. Being generally calmer means living for longer.
- The Oxygen Advantage book by Patrick McKeown is an exciting story of the author treating his own asthma with slow breathing exercises. After fine tuning the treatment protocol Patrick helped thousands of people with respiratory disorders. The book provides a detailed scientific explanation why this method works. It is also full of practical exercises which help to manage body weight, improve athletic performance and even stop snoring during a sleep. I tried exercises in this book and they helped me to run and cycle more efficiently. I highly recommend .
- Some mammals, like bats, echidnas and naked mole rats live unproportionally longer as compared to similar sized mammals. For example, naked mole rats live up to 30 years which is 10–15 longer, then their cousin — mice. Scientists  attribute this to a large degree to the fact that these animals have low respiratory rates, their arterial O2 levels are relatively low and C02 levels are relatively high (as compared to other mammals of similar size).
Ok, let’s assume that you now believe in the benefits of slow breathing. Does it mean that you will jump on this free health improving opportunity and start practicing it daily? Probably not.
Most people are aware of the huge benefits of moderate exercise. Yet according to the US Center for Disease Control and Prevention data from 2018 only 23% of American adults meet federal guidelines for weekly physical activity.
Still, there are several things you could do to make slow breathing become a daily habit. Here are the 4 steps which will help. I have not invented them. I borrowed them from a great book, “Tiny Habits” by BJ Fogg. BJ Fogg is a behavioural scientist from Stanford University, who has studied the habit creation process for over 20 years. I tried these steps and they worked beautifully for me.
- Create a basic motivation.
For me this means to have a belief that something really works. The best thing about slow breathing is that even a few minutes practice produces an objectively measurable difference. You are unlikely to feel a difference if you jog or meditate for 5 minutes. Yet, you can objectively measure an outcome of 5 min slow breathing. Here are the three experiments which you can make at home to check how it works for you.
- If you are an Apple Watch and IPhone user you can launch the Apple Watch app Breathe. Follow a breathing circle for a few minutes. Then go to iPhone Apple app Health, find a section related to heart health and study a change in HRV. Without going into technical details: a higher HRV = a calmer state of mind and body.
- If you have an elevated blood pressure you may try the following experiment. Measure your blood pressure. Then follow a breathing circle on one of the YouTube videos with breathing exercises to lower blood pressure for 3–5 minutes. Then measure your blood pressure again. Most people observe a clear reduction in their blood pressure. Breathing exercises together with moderate physical exercises helped me to fix my work stress related anxiety and high blood pressure within a year. Without medication.
- This one works for owners of Muse, a headband which reads EEG signals from our brain. Muse is a favourite with meditation nerds. Muse talks to your phone and acts as a feedback sensor for your brain signals. You listen to a calming sound from your phone, i.e. breaking ocean waves, trying to relax. The more relaxed you are — the more bird singing sounds overlay the sound of ocean waves. I have been playing with Muse for half a year now and I get many more birds from 5 minutes of slow breathing than I get from a 5 min guided meditation.
2. Find an anchor moment.
This is a moment which is already hard wired in your daily routine. Practicing your new habit either right before or right after an anchor moment significantly increases chances of it to stick. I usually practice slow breathing 2–3 times every day.
- After lunch. Many people are a little slower at this time, as our bodies are digesting a meal. It’s a great time to sit with a straight back, close eyes for 5 min and do slow breathing. You can get away with it even in a busy office if you keep seated without dropping your head on your desk :)
- Laying in my bed just before getting to sleep. 5–10 minutes of slow breathing does magic for me. I fall asleep quickly and enjoy a restful night
- After a hard exercise session. Especially if you exercise in the evening or late afternoon. Hard exercise sessions of 2+ hours with intervals close to max heart rate done in the afternoon lead to higher resting heart rates in the evening and lower quality of sleep. As an example, earlier today I followed my exercise with a 5 min slow breathing exercise right after, which reduced my post exercise heart rate from 71 to 68 BPMs and my HRV increased from 33 to 39 ms (higher number means calmer mind and body).
3. Make the behaviour you want tiny.
Anyone can find 10min in a day to build a new useful habit. I provided several examples above showing that even 5 min of deep breathing at a time makes a measurable positive effect. If you have more time — great, breath slowly for 15 or 20 min. But even if you do this twice a day for 5 min, you will still see a lasting positive effect.
4. Celebrate instantly.
Do something which creates a positive emotion. Just say to yourself “I did a good job!” If you wake up fully refreshed next morning after a slow breathing exercise, it’s a great reason to celebrate, right?
Some people, like myself, love to track progress objectively. That’s where mobile apps come so handy. Some of them not only guide you with a breathing circle, they also help you to understand how your heart rate changes after a breathing session. Or how your HRV has changed and whether you have become calmer.
So far we have discussed that breathing exercises help to calm us. There are other types of breathing exercises. They get us energized, i.e after waking up, or increase our focus. They use different ratios of inhale and exhale intervals, as well as breath holds of different duration.
I am passionate about breathing exercises and hence created a mobile app BreathNow which includes 6 different fixed breathing patterns: from making your calmer to increasing your focus prior to important events.
All of us are different, our bodies react differently to breathing intervals of different length. The unique feature of BreathNow is that you can use one of the standard breathing patterns as a base. Then create your own custom breathing pattern and fine tune it to suit your mind and body. By measuring heart rate changes and alertness right within the app. No additional sensors needed.
The app also has a powerful system of reminders. They help to create a habit of doing breathing exercises regularly. Then you can record your experiences in the journal. Also right within the app. Journaling has been scientifically proven to reinforce positive behaviours through reflection and instant celebration. Remember suggestions #3 and #4 from BJ Fogg?
Finally, the app includes instructional videos with relaxing exercises which augment slow breathing: meditation, yoga, qigong, etc.
Please try the app. Most functions are free. Would love to hear your feedback how it worked for you. Please let me know how we can improve it. Enjoy breathing, stay healthy and live longer!
1. Marc A. Russo, Danielle M. Santarelli, Dean O’Rourke. The physiological effects of slow breathing in the healthy humans.
2. Patrick G McKeown. The Oxygen Advantage.
3. Steward Nicole, Niels A. Andersen. Control of breathing in the echidna (Tachyglossus aculeatus) during hibernation