Such a claim may seem like hot air, but it’s not to be sniffed at: optimising how you breathe offers health benefits – and, experts argue, could even help you to manage your business more effectively
We do it about 12 times every minute without even thinking about it, but it keeps us alive. In fact, if we were to stop doing it for just the amount of time it takes to boil an egg, most of us would suffer some form of brain damage. Breathing supplies our cells with the oxygen they need, helps to regulate our temperature, restores our energy and dictates how well we sleep. What’s more, according to experts, taking a little time to focus on this most important of bodily functions could make you a better leader.
Preoccupied by the relentless demands of running a business, it’s only natural that directors are more mindful of their output than their outbreath. While focusing on making your firm’s assets go as far as possible, you could be failing to put the most valuable resource at your disposal to its best use. Optimal breathing, it has been proved, can help you to concentrate and increase your productivity. Indeed, it can make leaders more creative, better able to cope with the demands of their work – and happier.
Richard Russell is a consultant respiratory physician at Lymington New Forest Hospital. He believes that most of us don’t breathe “naturally” any more.
“As babies, we naturally take deep breaths from our abdomens. As we get older, periods of stress cause our central nervous systems to operate in the sympathetic mode. This means that our natural ‘fight or flight’ response kicks in, which causes us to take shorter, sharper breaths,” explains Russell, who is also an honorary senior lecturer at the University of Oxford. “Over time, we become used to over-breathing and start to hyperventilate permanently, which leads to a poor exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the bloodstream.”
Taking in too little oxygen this way can lead to symptoms including dizziness, headaches, confusion and poor co-ordination. This can eventually cause a condition known as hypoxaemia, where there isn’t enough oxygen in the blood to nourish our tissues and organs properly, resulting in extreme fatigue, insomnia, depression and even panic attacks. Over-breathing can also mean that we exhale too much carbon dioxide, which can put the pH levels of our cells out of balance.
It’s estimated that 80 per cent of people in the western world over-breathe. Directors are particularly prone to it because of their relatively high exposure to work-related stress. Typical signs of permanent hyperventilation include the tendency to breathe through the mouth instead of the nose; the need to inhale deeply before talking; and, most notably, an overdependence on the muscles of the upper chest. The way to correct it, experts claim, is to learn to breathe more slowly and deeply using the diaphragm, thereby rebalancing the autonomic nervous system.
“Many people in highly demanding roles understand the importance of taking time out to exercise and eat well to maintain good physical health, but very few pay attention to how they breathe, which is just as important,” says Alan Dolan, a “breath guru” who teaches a technique known as conscious breathing. “This involves really focusing on infusing the body with oxygen. It’s a safe and effective way of recharging our own, often depleted, systems to work to their healing capacity.”
As a former PR manager in the aerospace industry, Dolan had been suffering from executive stress himself when he discovered conscious breathing while on a sabbatical in 2004. Its mooted benefits include a reduction in stress, an increased ability to learn and a clearer mind. What’s more, you should start looking healthier, as there will be more oxygenated blood getting to your skin.
“Most people use only 25 per cent of their breathing capacity, but virtually every condition can be improved simply by drawing a fuller breath,” says Dolan, who now runs regular “breathing space retreats” and workshops in the UK and at his home on Lanzarote.
Lifestyle factors also affect how well we breathe, of course. A lack of exercise and excessive talking can be detrimental, as can poor air quality (smokers are obviously putting themselves at a huge disadvantage here). A study by the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry in Mainz has found that more than three million people die prematurely each year as a result of air pollution – a bigger death toll than that of malaria and HIV/Aids combined. If you can exercise regularly, get plenty of fresh air and avoid smoking your muscles should become more efficient at using the oxygen you take in.
So how can you fit conscious breathing into your busy routine? See below for the technique that Dolan advocates, which takes only 10 minutes a day. As you get used to breathing this way, your body will receive the amount of oxygen it needs and you should feel the benefits, to both your health and your performance as a business leader.
Alan Dolan’s daily 10-minute conscious breathing exercise
Lie supine in a warm, quiet place, with your head and upper body propped up at a 45-degree angle, firmly supported by pillows or cushions. Place your hands on your abdomen so that you can feel the breaths you’ll be taking. With your mouth wide open and jaw relaxed, inhale through your mouth deep into your abdomen for a count of two, then immediately exhale for one, like a quick sigh. Don’t pause; breathe in a continuous flow. The goal, Dolan says, is a “connected breath”.