Fitness Articles

How to Breathe During Exercise

The Ins and Outs of Proper Breathing for Every Workout

By Nicole Nichols, Fitness Instructor with Jason Anderson, Certified Personal Trainer         
Page 1 of 3
When people begin a fitness program, they understandably have lots of questions, from how to perform certain moves to which exercises are most effective. One question that everyone seems to ask is how to breathe properly when working out.

I know what you are thinking. "Who would need instructions on how to breathe?" Breathing doesn't take thought; it is involuntary, just like blinking your eyes. Shouldn't we stop thinking about it so and just let it happen? Yes and no. Trainers or exercise instructors regularly need to remind their clients to breathe because so many people tend to hold their breath when they work out.

But holding your breath isn't the only problem people face during exercise; their breath is often too fast, too slow, too deep or too shallow. Sometimes they even inhale and exhale at the wrong times, and while that will not make or break your workout, it can affect the exercise itself, how well you perform it, and your mind-body connection.

Breathing Basics
In our daily lives, breathing comes naturally and doesn't require any thought. We need oxygen, so we inhale, and we need to rid our bodies of carbon dioxide, so we exhale. However, few people use their lungs to their full capacity. It has been reported that at rest, people use just 10%-15% of their actual lung capacity, usually a result of quick, shallow breaths that make the chest rise and fall.

When you exercise, however, your working muscles demand greater amounts of oxygen and you create more carbon dioxide waste as a result. This results in an automatic increase in your respiration rate. But exercisers—especially new ones—shouldn't take this process for granted. Becoming more aware of your breath can help you feel more comfortable (breathing too slowly can increase your heart rate and affect your perceived intensity), prevent complications (like dizziness or faintness that can result from a lack of oxygen), and get more out of your workouts. Here's what you need to know to breathe properly during five common types of exercise.

Cardio (Aerobic) Exercise
When you are walking, running, biking, Spinning, or doing any other form of cardiovascular exercise, try to breathe deeply. "As to whether you breathe through your nose, mouth, or a combination of the two, is a personal preference," says SparkPeople's Nancy Howard, a certified running coach. "Most runners find that mouth breathing provides the body with the greatest amount of oxygen," she explains, and this may be the case for other exercisers, too. Make a conscious effort to keep your breathing both deep and relaxed. Ideally, we should all practice diaphragmatic breathing or "belly" breathing during cardio activities, which contrasts considerably with the shallow chest breaths we do while at rest. Diaphragmatic breathing allows for deeper, fuller breaths and better oxygen delivery during intense exercise. Here's how to do it:
  1. Relax your abdominals slightly. Pulling them in too tightly or sucking in your stomach will limit how fully your can breathe.
  2. Breathe deeply enough that your belly—not your chest—rises and falls as you inhale and exhale.
  3. Continue this technique at your own pace to meet your oxygen needs during exercise.
If this does not come naturally, you can practice belly breathing by lying flat on your back with a book on your abdomen. Slowly inhale as you watch the book rise, then lower the book by slowly exhaling. This takes focus, but over time you will find it easier to do this type of breathing during your workouts. If your breathing is short and shallow, you might be working too hard or you may have not developed a good breathing pattern for your activity. But keep in mind that your breath will not always line up perfectly with your movements when doing cardio, and you shouldn't try to force it to. For example, a swimmer may take a breath on one arm stroke and exhale after three arm strokes, but there is no rule that you have to breathe in for three steps while walking and then out for three steps. The key is to find a breathing pattern that is comfortable for you and stick with it.
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About The Author

Nicole Nichols Nicole Nichols
A certified personal trainer and fitness instructor with a bachelor's degree in health education, Nicole loves living a healthy and fit lifestyle and helping others do the same. Nicole was formerly SparkPeople's fitness expert and editor-in-chief, known on the site as "Coach Nicole." Make sure to explore more of her articles and blog posts.

Member Comments

  • Exercise breathing has been a problem for me; I inhale and exhale on exactly the wrong part of the activity. It may go back to my high school wrestling days (50+ years ago) when I learned to hold my breath when exerting pressure on an opponent. I now know that your body needs to carry the oxygen to your body to fuel the muscles. - 4/24/2016 10:59:07 PM
  • As I was just wishing I'd seen this article long ago, I clicked "Save" and discovered I'd done so long ago. Talk about feeling stupid, ay ay ay, I've always had difficulty coordinating inhaling and exhaling with exercise moves. I'd give up on proper technique and feel less than satisfied with counting aloud; if you're speaking, you're breathing. I'll never forget the article again. - 5/18/2015 5:30:57 AM
  • Most often Coach Nicole reminds exercisers when to breathe while using one of her videos. This has been extremely helpful, though I still sometimes get my inhale and exhale cycles turned about . - 8/22/2014 10:47:19 PM
    I love website. I have referred this website to many of my friends as well as family.
    Thank you for all the wonderful advice and encouragement. - 5/4/2014 5:27:44 PM
  • Much good information here. - 3/23/2014 6:11:48 AM
  • Great article. I think it's good to breath on any exercise. It make you feel better as well. - 9/17/2013 4:47:47 PM
  • I naturally fall in to counting breaths as I exercise. I think this comes from gymnastics and yoga. I just recently realized how much it helps me hold positions longer and power through a work out more. I am helping train a friend for running and some strength training. She forgets to breath. I actually have to tell her, remember to breath. It is a bit of a joke to us now, but I sent her this article as a reminder LOL. - 3/20/2012 11:21:42 AM
  • I have recently been focusing more on my breathing while running, and I realized that I was breathing too quickly (and far too shallow), which caused me to tense my body too much. The entire action of running flows so much easier when the breathing is calmer and then the body can relax into the movement.

    Thank you also for explaning the difference between belly breathing and rib cage breathing. I now have a better understanding of just exactly what my pilates instructor was wanting us to do. - 10/19/2011 6:36:06 PM
    This is a really great article. I have a problem of holding my breath while I'm running, and it makes it so much harder for me to maintain a pace and go good distances. I really hope this helps-- making me aware of my breathing. - 4/14/2011 10:09:40 PM
  • This is a brilliant article and I've only recently realised how IMPORTANT it is to breath right. I found that I was breathing way too shallow whilst on treadmill, which was giving me a stitch after like 30mins running. So today, when I started feeling the stitch, I made it a point to concentrate on breathing deeply and, lo and behold, the stitch disappeared and I was able to complete my 60min run.

    Thanks for the article. - 2/11/2011 6:27:41 AM
  • Proper brething is a critically essential element in the correct practice of KARATEDO. Why was this NOT mentioned in the article? - 1/28/2011 10:46:04 PM
  • Thanks. I have been working on my breathing as I breathe shallow and with my anemia, I have to increase my oxgenation to build my body. Great article. - 10/30/2010 9:13:22 PM
  • thanks. i know i breathe at the wrong times when i workout - 9/16/2010 12:53:08 PM
  • MORIAH86
    Good article...I'm practising with the book...Thanks for the heads up. - 9/16/2010 9:17:15 AM
  • Thanks for a good clear comparison of breathing for these different disciplines. Singers do have a leg up on breathing deeply, but often there is confusion when it comes to "belly breathing" and "rib expansion." I have found that aspects of both types of breathing are valuable to singers, so fear not to explore. It is true that audible inhalations and exhalations are not something to encourage if you care about your voice. Best to take it easy with that... - 8/31/2010 5:15:20 PM

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