Raising Your Perception with Respiration and Perspiration by Dr.E. Paul Zehr, PhD

Respiration

Controlling breath to affect brain activity may help healthy aging.

KEY POINTS

  • Breathing and movement are key parts of being alive as a human animal in the world.
  • Respiration affects mood, memory, and sensory perception.
  • Mindful practices like yoga, martial arts, and moving in walking can help couple breath and brain.
  • Becoming and staying active across the lifespan is a key determinant of healthy aging.

As we get older, we humans experience some decreases in function in multiple domains. But how much of these decreases are due to real decline and how much to disuse? And what can be done about it?

People are animals that breathe and move

It must always be kept front and center that humans are animals, too. Animals are meant to move and moving expends energy. Our cells need oxygen to support our actions and this is achieved by breathing. Our respiration supports our cells and varies with our activities. In fact, there is known coupling between breathing and actions like walking and running.

The smell of activity in the morning

Related to respiration is olfaction. Our ability to perceive smells is known to decrease as we get older. But does it have to and is it perhaps related to decreased physical activity and movement as “disuse” in aging?

Giorgia Sollai and Roberto Cmjar at the University of Cagliari in Italy were interested in just this issue. They did a survey of physically active women and men ~70 y old and contrasted with another group who were inactive. These researchers found that there was a strong correlation between objective measures of olfaction and the number of hours per week a person dedicated to physical activity.

What are some functional outcomes of respiration and brain rhythms?

It’s been known for a while that breathing affects brain activity. What’s been less obvious is possible functional and behavioral outcomes. Daniel Kluger and colleagues in Germany and the UK did a study to see how breathing might link to action, perception, and cognition. They measured respiration and brain excitability while participants completed a visual perception task on a computer screen. They found that breathing was coupled with changes in neural excitability that facilitated sensory perception. This is a great example of how respiratory rhythms can affect physiological and behavioral function.

Using body and breath to hack your brain

So what are ways you can deliberately use respiration to improve brain health? The most obvious answers are those activities that use breathing as a focus or that entrain breathing as a function of something else. Meditation is an example of a practice that focuses on breathing. Practices like yoga and martial arts straddle both, and walking and running entrain breathing automatically when we do them.

Let’s unpack a bit more the idea of entraining breathing by doing something else. It would be great if we could directly and beneficially affect brain activity simply by willing it so. Some meditative practices try to do this and can be effective but also take a lot of practice. This is not a necessarily a bad thing, I’m must saying. But since we know that breathing can positively alter brain activity, focusing on breathing is a way to hack the nervous system. Yet, this is also hard.

How about entraining respiration by movement? Walking and running produces “locomotor coupling” of breathing. But so can other practices like certain martial arts. Especially those “internal” systems of Chinese martial arts like Tai Chi, Bagua, and Hsing-i and also Qigong. These are also found in practices of many forms of Okinawan karate (with influences from Chinese martial arts), like the kata “Sanchin” or “Tensho”.

Sanchin is a form of practice that involves significant emphasis on coupling breathing with stepping and arm movements. Some systems focus on the effect that Sanchin dynamic tension can have on muscles and bones, but a key is the target of training on breathing. In this way you can focus on the movements that you can see (like a slow punch) and then couple slow breathing with that activity. This means you can try and change brain rhythms by focusing on your body to help you focus on your breathing which does its good deeds without you having to do anything further. The idea here is to use our breathing to help alter activity in the brain to thus improve our function but we do it by bodily practice.

Whatever practice a person might choose, the clear message is this: being physically active across the lifespan is always beneficial. Paying attention to breathing can affect our emotional state and help with memory. No matter if the focus is breath, brain or body, you can get them all if you do it right and keep on doing it as you get older.

E. Paul Zehr, Ph.D., is a professor of neuroscience and kinesiology at the University of Victoria and the author of “Becoming Batman” and “Inventing Iron Man.”