It's time for a little controversy! How you breathe determines how well your muscles and organs are oxygenated. This is especially true during physical exercise. The answer ... breathe less air! Yup, smaller breaths are essential. Let's take a look at the science.
Introducing the Bohr Effect
In 1904, Dr. Christian Bohr of Denmark published an important study on body gases and the associated physiology. His findings became known as the Bohr Effect.
In this study Dr. Bohr reports on his discovery of an important chemical reaction that must take place to release oxygen from the blood, enabling it to be absorbed by muscle and organ cells. The key findings were:
Carbon Dioxide Retention is Key
So, our old friend carbon dioxide shows up again as an important contributor to how things work in the body. Without retaining proper CO2 levels in the body, proper muscle and organ oxygenation won't occur and the muscle or organ can't do its job as well. If reduced oxygenation for muscles and organs persists over time, the muscle or organ will most likely become weak or diseased.
Retaining CO2 For Cell Oxygenation
The question becomes, how do we retain proper levels of carbon dioxide in the body to maximize muscle and organ oxygenation? How you breathe does the trick.
Carbon dioxide is produced inside the body, the byproduct of busy and active cells; there is not enough CO2 in the air we breath to help. CO2 leaves the body when we exhale. If we breathe large amounts of air in, it makes sense that large amounts of carbon dioxide are leaving the body. Therefore, if we can breathe small amounts of air in , we should only be exhaling a small amount of CO2.
What's The Correct Amount of Air To Breathing In to Avoid CO2 Loss?
The medical community measures breath volume as the number of liters of air inhaled each minute. The term they use is "minute-volumes." A normal minute volume is 4 to 6 liters of air each minute. This is the optimal amount for the body oxygenation and for minimizing CO2 loss. Athletes can get away with a bit higher minute-volumes given increased production of CO2 during exercise.
Unfortunately, given a number of factors (stress and diet) many people in the western world are breathing 15 to 30 liters of air per minute at rest. Athletes and very sick people are most likely towards the upper end of the range. This big breathing is blowing off huge amounts of CO2, which should be used to help muscle and organ oxygenation.
How Do I Change My Breathing and Retain More CO2?
Simply by reducing the amount of air you breathe, moving from 15-30 liters of air per minute to 4-6 liters of air per minute, slightly higher for athletes. And it is very doable through breath training.
Breath training focuses on optimizing breath mechanics (how we breathe), increasing our tolerance of carbon dioxide (keeping it in the body) and reducing the volume of air we breathe. For most people this process can take a few weeks to a few months by employing some very simple breathing exercises practiced every day. Some of these breathing exercises can be integrated into your daily routine.
For most, we are not properly oxygenating our muscles and organs given how we breathe and the loss of carbon dioxide. Changing our breathing mechanics, tolerating CO2 better and breathing less air with every inhale, is the key. How you breathe really matters.