Breathing Techniques for Optimal Mood, Performance, and Well-Being

By Joel Sattgast

Spend any length of time viewing and consuming print, digital or social media and it won’t be long before you’re being bombarded with numerous life-changing and self-help schemes: “Unlock Your Day with 10 Morning Rituals,” “Bulletproof Your Mind in 3 Simple Steps,” “The Beginners Guide to Ice Bath Immersion.” The list of alluring titles is endless, all with the same promise of optimal health and well-being.

With an emerging industry of biohackers and influencers all seemingly focused on ‘optimization,’ it is a daunting task to discern fact from fiction. Instead of offering clarity and simplicity, many are left confused and frustrated. And while the list of modifiable health and wellness factors is long (e.g. consider improved sleep habits, regular physical activity, adequate hydration and nutrition timing, and nurturing connections and relationships), perhaps none are as effortless or capable of immediate impact as the art of purposeful breathing.

Now before we go any further, let’s practice something. Since you’ve undoubtedly found a comfortable place to read the latest edition of Out There Outdoors, you’re all set. So, let’s get started. 1) After closing your mouth and relaxing your body, exhale all the air from your lungs. 2) Inhale slowly through your nose over four counts. 3) Hold your breath for four counts. 4) Now exhale slowly through your nose over four counts. 5) Finally, hold your breath for four counts.

You’ve just completed box breathing. To get a better idea of this breathing technique, imagine a box with equal sides: inhale = up, hold = horizontal, exhale = down, hold = horizontal. This simple strategy is used throughout the world by healthcare practitioners, athletes, the U.S. military and special forces, biohackers and many more individuals all with one goal in mind – nervous system optimization. 

While breathing directly impacts both heart and lung function, the impact to the nervous system is equally important. Whereas shallow breathing often accompanies stress (think fight-or-flight response), diaphragmatic breathing, facilitated during box breathing, helps regulate heart rate, respiration rate, cortisol (i.e. stress hormone), and many other related pathways. The result of this focused respiration: a positive influence over mood and arousal.

With the aim of optimizing the nervous system and alleviating stress, researchers have identified an additional technique known as respiratory sinus arrhythmia. To begin, inhale calmly and then forcefully exhale. Repeat this alternating pattern for 15-25 breaths. At the end, hold your breath for 15 seconds while focusing on calming both your mind and body. It is not uncommon to experience a feeling of unease or even a sense of anxiety when first practicing this technique. However, success is still attainable by starting with fewer initial breaths and by shortening the hold at the end.

Now, I won’t go so far as to promise a complete transformation of your overall well-being by incorporating “The Single Best Breathing Technique for Optimal Health” into your daily routine (as catchy as it may seem). Nevertheless, taking a few moments to engage in mindful breathing may be one of the easiest ways to positively impact your mood, performance, and overall well-being, whether you’re confined to the office, the workplace, the classroom or out enjoying the last fall hike before trading hiking boots for snowshoes. //

Joel Sattgast is an outdoor enthusiast, physical therapist, performance coach, and EWU assistant professor.

Cover Photo Joel Sattgast

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