If I were to ask you, “why do you exercise?” we would hear a variety of answers.
The one common denominator is most of us are trying to improve our health and/or performance. The key word being “improve.” To improve means to “make something better.” Exercise is a physical activity that is typically planned, structured and repetitive for the purpose of conditioning the body. To “improve” our health and/or performance means we follow this structured plan over and over to “condition” the body where we want to see improvements.
The same way we train the body can be the same way we train our mind/brain: always in growth mode. Train your mind and you change your brain. This is called Neuroplasticity which is the brain’s capacity to change and adapt as the result of our interactions with our environment. In reality, we are training our mind/brain when we exercise but the question is, are we training it for positive growth?
- The relationship between breath rates, heart rates and the optimal brain function.
- Stimulating the vagus nerve to improve psychological behavior patterns.
- Breath and basic brain wave patterns.
Let’s start with our first learning objective. Since we’re trying to learn something new by reading this article, let’s incorporate optimal strategies for growth. Sit up tall with an erect spine. Relax your eyes and jaw. Begin nasal diaphragmatic breathing creating balance between the length, depth and pace of your inhale and exhale. Breathe as slowly as you can and continue reading. Notice how controlling the length, depth and pace in a calm manner improves concentration and the integration of information. Let’s continue...
Imagine this, you give your client a training sequence. They raise their eyes and look at you in disbelief. They’re not convinced they can accomplish what you just asked them to do; or, you have the client that says, “bring it” and will push themselves beyond healthy boundaries. Which is better thinking?
In either scenario, the heart rate is going up, breathing rates are becoming shallow and rapid, thoughts are probably racing and we’ve signaled the brain for a sympathetic response. The length of our inhale and exhale dictates the response between our heart and brain. The longer and slower the inhale, the less sympathetic (or cooler) its response. The longer and slower the exhale, the greater improvement of Heart Rate Variability (HRV) health, which is the study of the intervals between consecutive heart beats. The fields of neuroscience and, specifically, neurocardiology have revealed some amazing research on the significant relationship between the autonomic nervous system and cardiovascular mortality (Fan, et al., 2011). Since many of our clients are likely already in this system when they came in for their training session, it’s extremely important that our training aims to reduce physical, mental and emotional stress.
Optimal heart rates are directly linked to breathing rates. Both breathing rates and heart rates are communicating with our brain and autonomic nervous system (ANS). (Telles, Singh, & Balkrishna, 2011). They are responding to thoughts in the mind which signal a sympathetic or parasympathetic response. Think of the brain as the hard drive and the mind as the software. To condition and improve our personal awareness, it’s important to take less breaths per minute and keep heart rates down. This is “body OVER mind” training.
In the example above, the optimal mental space is neutral. This is where transformation takes place. This is how we train the body, mind and brain healthfully. You’re not doing your thoughts and your thoughts are not doing you. When we consciously control the body’s biochemistry and physiology with breath, we create a positive psychological environment for growth. Specifically, nasal diaphragmatic breathing whereby we’re stimulating the vagus nerve. By consciously controlling the breath, we can create balance in the ANS instead of a constant sympathetic charge with high heart rates (Arora et al., 2016).
Length, depth and pace (LDP) is something I teach everyday with every client. We can sequence LDP hundreds of different ways in training and apply it to any training platform. The length, depth, and pace of our breathing is a direct reflection of our feeling and thinking about ourselves and the world around us. We live in the feeling of our thinking which means the body bears the burden of both positive and negative thoughts. Energy follows awareness.
Action is the expression of the energy derived from our thoughts (or awareness). In the beginning of any workout or training, the energy is a slave to our personal awareness or perception. The goal is to improve the thoughts of our clients so energy is directed into healthy action. So, the warm-up period is actually setting the tone for the rest of the workout. By giving the body and brain the proper neurochemistry, it’s “body over mind.” When we slow down the pace of the breath (less breaths per minute), thoughts move slower and the brain reduces the choices and simplifies them. We simply stop judging, comparing, and labeling our thoughts. We become the witness which prohibits an emotional reaction to the thoughts. Distance and time awareness slows down and we are in a low to mid-level “flow state” (Caldwell, C. & Himmat, V. K., 2011). We are limitless in our choices. We are in the zone of the full human potential well beyond the ego’s gates of attachments. We think, feel & behave in harmony with the body.
When using the breath to positively influence psychological states of being, we’re also working with brain wave patterns. Our 9 to 5 mind is operating with the brain wave pattern called Beta. That’s the one you’re using to read this article. A little bit slower is called Alpha waves. This is the creative wave pattern involved in “overall mental coordination, calmness, alertness, mind/body integration and learning.” Slower than that is called Theta waves when you’re not fully awake or asleep. It’s the perfect space to learn new concepts if you can stay awake. The slowest is Delta waves which happen during sleep when the brain is repairing itself from our day and organizing itself for tomorrow (Brainworks, n.d.).
Think of the breath-based warm-up as moving from Beta to Alpha. We’re integrating the body and mind for healthful action throughout our entire workout. With “planned, structured and repetitive” breathing techniques within the workout, we can transform the old feedback loop from that of stress-based induced exercise to one of balance and neuroplasticity.
Let’s go back to my original question on why we exercise. Many say it’s to “blow off steam” or “let go of the stress from their day.” If energy follows awareness, the mind (or software) should grow and transform or the hardware will simply burnout. This takes time and patience. Utilizing breath control in our training sessions, we improve cardiovascular, respiratory, digestive, immune, and endocrine function along with psychological states of being without the normal wear and tear to the brain and body. We amplify improvements of strength, speed, endurance, and balance not just in the body, but the brain also.
It’s the whole package. The whole person using their whole brain; not just half. Learn the power of breath control and go to the next level in your next session.
Go BE Great Today
Learn More About Breath
To learn more about becoming neuro-fit and incorporating Breath AS Medicine in your training, check out Ed’s Breath AS Medicine: Improving Health and the Training Experience online course or the more extensive 15-Hour Breath Training online course.
Fan, W. H., Ko, J. H., Lee, M. J., Xu, G., and Lee, G. S. (2011). Response of nasal airway and heart rate variability to controlled nasal breathing. Eur Arch Otorhinolaryngol, 268(4):547-53. doi: 10.1007/s00405-010-1402-0
Telles, S., Singh, N., and Balkrishna, A. (2011). Heart rate variability changes during high frequency yoga breathing and breath awareness. BioPsychoSocial Medicine, 5(4). doi:10.1186/1751-0759-5-4
Brainworks Neurotherapy. (n.d.). http://www.brainworksneurotherapy.com/what-are-brainwaves
Arora, N., Gottfried, J. A., Jiang, H., Rosenow, J., Schuele, S., Zelano, C. and Zhou, G. (December 7, 2016). Nasal Respiration Entrains Human Limbic Oscillations and Modulates Cognitive Function. Journal of Neuroscience, 36 (49) 12448-12467
Caldwell, C. and Himmat, V. K. (May 18, 2011). Breathwork in body psychotherapy: Towards a more unified theory and practice. Body, Movement and Dance in Psychotherapy. An International Journal for Theory, Research and Practice Volume 6, Page 89-101