Health & Fitness

Use full lung capacity for better health and fitness

Taking a deep breath and counting how long you can make a pinwheel spin is one way to improve breathing, Pilates instructor Aliesa George says.
Taking a deep breath and counting how long you can make a pinwheel spin is one way to improve breathing, Pilates instructor Aliesa George says. The Wichita Eagle

Twenty years ago, Aliesa George had a voice injury that made it painful to talk. She taught and coached aerobics, gymnastics and dance. She was afraid of losing her livelihood as well as the ability to share her passion with others.

Then she discovered Pilates. And a whole new way to breathe as well as exercise.

“Breathing was one of the things I realized I didn’t know how to do right,” George said. “I was a competitive dancer and gymnast. I breathed shallowly through the top of my chest and not into the whole lung. ... I always hated running and cardio because I could never take a deep enough breath for it to be fun.”

George learned through Pilates how to support good posture and how to center her head on her shoulders to open her windpipe and take the strain off her vocal chords. Her voice injury healed.

Her experience proves that the most automatic thing we do can also dramatically improve our lives if we stop making it so automatic. Deep breathing can ease pain, stress and such conditions as Attention Deficit Disorder and even help us lose weight, according to its proponents.

“Breathing is going to make a difference for a healthy life,” George said.

According to the website WebMD, “deep breathing is one of the best ways to lower stress in the body. This is because when you breathe deeply, it sends a message to your brain to calm down and relax. The brain then sends this message to your body. Those things that happen when you are stressed, such as increased heart rate, fast breathing, and high blood pressure, all decrease as you breathe deeply to relax. The way you breathe affects your whole body. Breathing exercises are a good way to relax, reduce tension, and relieve stress.”

Breathing properly can ease many cases of back pain, shoulder pain, neck pain and headaches, said George, who runs Vitality Pilates and Fitness in west Wichita with Amie Ross.

George said one of her students had suffered carbon monoxide poisoning and was barely breathing to stay alive. The first day she came in for Pilates, “she felt air going into the bottom of her lungs. Tears were streaming down her face. ...

“The body can regenerate and learn and get better. With asthmatics, people with breathing problems, learning and practicing better breathing really helps.”

“For sick people, we know that it works,” Wichita pulmonologist Abdel-Ghanie Abu-Samra said. No matter why people are in the hospital, they benefit from breathing into an incentive spirometer, Abu-Samra said. That’s a device that helps patients focus on how they’re breathing and measures the depth of their breath.

“When they’re in bed, they’re not breathing as much. ... A lot of those patients can’t move, so this is what we do.”

Breathing also can help people lose weight, Pam Grout writes in the book “Jumpstart Your Metabolism.”

“You literally work at one-fifth of your potential when you don’t get enough oxygen,” Grout writes. “Your body slows down, gains weight, and becomes even more stubborn about changing.”

One simple, commonly recommended way to start breathing deeply is to lie down and place a small book on your stomach. When you breathe in, make the book go up. When you breathe out, make the book go down. Or while sitting, place your hand on your stomach and do the same thing until you get the hang of it.

“You can use this breathing technique to help you be more focused and less anxious and have better control over your temper,” physician Daniel Amen writes in his book “Healing ADD.” “It is easy to learn and it can also be applied to help with the sleep problems so common in ADD.”

One way to be aware of how you breathe, George said, is to place a long scarf across your back with the ends in front, the bottom edge of the scarf sitting at the bottom of your rib cage in back. Cross the ends in front and take hold of them in your hands, drop your shoulders, and breathe. The scarf helps you to feel where your breath is in your lungs so that you can focus on breathing fully in both lungs. Most people breathe more deeply in one lung than the other, George said. You can work on breathing in one lung and then the other, and then on fully breathing in a balanced way in both lungs.

In Pilates, people are taught to breathe from the bottom to the top of the rib cage, which corresponds with where the lungs are, George said. This causes the vertebrae to move apart somewhat, acting as a decompression of the spine to help make the back healthy, she said.

Some of George’s other breathing tips:

▪ Inhale through the nose, because hairs in the nose act as a filter. Normally you also will exhale through the nose, but in vigorous exercise, exhaling through the mouth gets more waste air out and moves more oxygen.

▪ Counting the seconds that you’re able to continually blow a pinwheel tests how deeply and long you can breathe, George said. The deeper the breath you take, the longer you can keep the pinwheel going.

▪ When doing exercises, if you exhale on the exertion it will give your core a little more support.

▪ When people first start to work on deep breathing, they tend to get dizzy. It’s like trying any new exercise. “Sometimes it kind of freaks people out. It’s almost a muscle weakness; you’re slightly fatigued. Back off for a minute; let the dizziness go away, then dive back into it.” With strengthening, the dizziness should go away.

▪ Drape yourself over a balance ball. This restricts your belly so that you can move into your back with your breath, like a turtle into its shell. Or sit on a balance ball, in a chair or on a stool and bend forward. This helps you direct your breath, Ross said. It’s something you can do at work, for example.

George said that when she was a dancer she was a “high-chest breather. The bottom of my lungs were compressed. The back of the ribcage is squished, so learning how to change posture got more air to the bottom of my lungs.”

Since she’s changed how she breathes, “now I can run, and I enjoy it, because I’m able to breathe, and breathe better.”

Reach Annie Calovich at 316-268-6596 or Follow her on Twitter: @anniecalovich.

Breathing exercises

Triangle breathing

▪ Inhale through the nose for a count of four.

▪ Hold the air in the lungs for a count of four.

▪ Exhale through the nose for a count of four.

Square breathing

Repeat the steps for triangle breathing, adding a pause of four counts between each exhale and inhale.


Sing along with the radio every chance you get. The best songs to sing are those with lots of words, because the more words you have to squeeze in between breaths, the more you’ll exercise your lungs and respiratory muscles. If you don’t know all the words, “la la la” works fine.

Get rid of dead air

It’s also healthy to breathe out as much stale air as possible. Exhale to sound like Darth Vader: Tighten your throat somewhat to constrict it on the exhale to force out more air. Or, when lying down, mildly contract the abdomen at the end of the exhale to help get more air out.

Source: “Jumpstart Your Metabolism” by Pam Grout

Other tips for breathing can be found on Aliesa George’s website Click on the blog, then search for “breathing.”