Breathing slowly and coordinating breathing patterns with movements are hallmarks of mind-body exercise. Growing scientific evidence continues to support the health benefits of slow, deep breathing. A slow respiratory rate improves cardiovascular and respiratory function, improves blood oxygenation, enhances exercise tolerance, and increases calmness and well-being, according to a study published in the British Medical Journal (BMJ) (2001; 323 , 1446–49).
Six breath cycles per minute is considered slow enough to induce relaxation. Studies show that this breathing rate enhances and synchronizes cardiovascular rhythms and is the respiratory rate of those who recite prayers or yoga mantras, states the article in BMJ. A breath cycle consists of one inhalation and one exhalation. On average, people complete 16 breath cycles per minute. Many people, therefore, can benefit from slow-breathing exercises to access states of relaxation and well-being.
Research on a new device further substantiates the benefits of slow breathing, according to a study published in the Journal of Clinical Hypertension (2004, 6 , 553–59). Scientists at Rush University Medical School in Chicago studied the impact of using a slow-breathing device known as RESPeRATE. The product monitors the user’s breathing rate, determines a preferred breathing rate, and plays two distinct tones—one for inhalation and one for exhalation—which the person hears through headphones. The user then follows the device’s guidance to establish a slower respiratory rate.
Researchers found that participants who used the device for a total of 180 minutes over 8 weeks (approximately 23 minutes per week) experienced an average drop of 15 points in systolic blood pressure. Subjects who used the device for 8 weeks but used it less achieved an average drop of 7 points in systolic blood pressure.
Approximately 1 in 4 American adults has high blood pressure, defined as 140/90 or higher, according to the American Heart Association. About 50 million Americans aged 6 and older have high blood pressure. Thirty percent of these people don’t know they have it. High blood pressure, or hypertension, increases the risk of heart attack or stroke, among other serious complications.
In addition to improving health and well-being, slow breathing is convenient, lacks the potential side effects of medications, is easy to perform and does not necessarily require the purchase of additional equipment. It can be hard to believe that something so easy and accessible can have so many benefits.
Before leading or recommending slow breathing to your clients, keep in mind that people who have low blood pressure or are on medication to lower it, people with diabetes and pregnant women need to exercise caution with breathing exercises. Slow, deep breathing exercises are not recommended for people with very low blood pressure or for anyone prone to fainting.