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4 Breathing Exercises to Improve Your Heart Health and Extend Life Span

4 Breathing Exercises to Improve Your Heart Health and Extend Life Span

Nick Heath, PhD Nick Heath, PhD
6 minute read

Your heart and your breathing work in elegant harmony through many ways to improve health and life span:

  • Inhalations cause the heart rate to increase, and exhalations cause it to decrease, which is called respiratory sinus arrhythmia (RSA).

  • Breathing slowly at around 6 breaths/min synchronizes your heart and nervous system, boosting heart rate variability (HRV).

  • Greater lung capacity is associated with less risk of cardiovascular disease and longer life.

We can take advantage of this heart-breath connection to improve cardiovascular health and live a better life. Here are 4 breathing exercises you can practice now that your heart will appreciate:

1. Slow Breathing at 5-6 Breaths per Minute

When it comes to heart health, slow breathing is #1. If you’re going to do anything breathing technique for your heart, this is the one.

When we breathe at approximately 5-6 breaths/min, we synchronize messages from our cardiovascular and autonomic nervous systems. It’s like pushing a child in a swing at the right time to make them go higher.

Breathing like this has a wide range of benefits, such as improved cardiovascular function, lower blood pressure, less stress, and more creativity.

How to do it:

The best place to start is a pace of 6 breaths per minute using a 4-second inhale and 6-second exhale. Several free-breathing apps available will guide you at this rate.

If you find this pace uncomfortable, you can try a 5-second inhale and 5-second exhale, or you can breathe slightly slower at 5 breaths per minute using a 6-second inhale and 6-second exhale.

The most important thing is to ensure your breathing is effortless, comfortable, and relaxed.

To get the most benefits, practice for at least 10 minutes twice daily (morning and evening).

BONUS: Anecdotally, many people feel greater benefits if they imagine breathing into their hearts for this practice. As you breathe in, imagine the breath going into the heart. As you breathe out, imagine the breath leaving the heart. It’s a relaxing and joyful way to perform slow breathing.

2. Left-Nostril and/or Alternate Nostril Breathing

Like slow breathing, research consistently shows that left-nostril and alternate nostril breathing improve heart health. For example, both have been shown to lower blood pressure and reduce stress and anxiety.

Breathing with only the right nostril is more stimulating, with some evidence suggesting it activates the sympathetic (fight-or-flight) nervous system. So, for heart health, we want to stick with either left-nostril or alternate nostril breathing.

How to do it:

For left-nostril breathing, use your right thumb to block your right nostril. Don’t plug your nostril; instead, press very gently on the soft cartilage of the nose to keep it closed. You can breathe at a comfortable pace or combine this method with slow breathing (see above).

For alternate nostril breathing, start with your right thumb closing your right nostril. Inhale through your left nostril, then block the left nostril with your right ring finger and exhale through your right. Next, inhale through your right nostril, block your right nostril, and exhale through your left.

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For timing, you can use the same protocol described above for slow breathing. But you should stop if your arm gets tired, as the stress of trying to hold it up will offset the positive effects of the breathing technique.

3. Extended Exhalations: A Counterintuitive Lung-Expanding Breathing Exercise

Larger lungs are associated with better heart health and longer life. Although genetics plays a role here, we can take steps to increase our lung capacity. And, somewhat counterintuitively, it starts with our exhale.

In the 1940s, Carl Stough, an American choral conductor turned breathing specialist, discovered that the key to bigger lungs lies in the out-breath. James Nestor nicely explains Stough’s work in Breath: “[t]he key to breathing, lung expansion, and the long life that came with it was on the other end of respiration. It was the transformative power of a full exhalation.”

To get more breath in, we must get all the stale air out.

How to do it:

Stough developed an extensive program for improving lung capacity, but a simple starting exercise is to take a breath in through your nose and repeatedly count to 10 out loud.

You’ll start clear, then move to a whisper, before you eventually you’re just moving your mouth. When it gets uncomfortable, you’ll know all the stale air is out, and you can take a full breath in (through your nose, of course).

4. Inspiratory Muscle Training: A Fast (but pricey) Path to Better Heart Health

Recent research has shown that training our breathing muscles improves our hearts. It’s like getting physical exercise without leaving your chair.

For example, it was discovered that breathing using a resistance device (called inspiratory muscle training) for about 5 minutes per day could:

  • Significantly reduce blood pressure

  • Improve endothelial function

  • Reduce oxidative stress

  • Increase nitric oxide bioavailability

  • Reduce systemic inflammation

That’s pretty incredible for just a few minutes a day.

How to do it:

Inspiratory muscle training requires using a breathing resistance device. Many options are available, ranging from approximately $50 to $500+. The one used in the study mentioned above was in the higher range, coming in at $499.

Once you have a device, here is the procedure used in the study:

The participants performed five sets of 6 breaths at 75% of peak inspiratory pressure, with 1-minute rest between each set of 6. This comes out to 30 breaths total over about 5-7 minutes. They did this six days a week for six weeks.

While it is an excellent starting protocol, this is still a new area of research, and there is no decisive “best approach” yet. So, my advice is to do the best you can with whichever device you decide on. (For example, I perform this 30-breath protocol with a resistance device, but I don’t know my exact 75% peak pressure. So, I simply set the resistance to be challenging but manageable.)

You can use these four excellent breathing practices to boost your heart health. And, of course, the most important thing is to get started and stay committed and consistent.

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