“Can improving breathing patterns help further fitness and optimize overall health for individuals who walk for exercise?”

Maximize Your Fitness Potential with Better Breathing Techniques

Improve Breathing and Walking

Exercising is a moment in which breathing can quicken and become labored if not done correctly. There is a proper way to breathe when exercising, especially when walking or speed walking. Breathing incorrectly causes rapid fatigue and exhaustion. Controlling the flow of one’s breath improves endurance and cardiovascular health, and it can also amplify metabolism, mood, and energy levels. (Hsiu-Chin Teng et al., 2018) Known as diaphragmatic breathing, it is used for those with reduced lung capacity, like individuals with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease/COPD. The practice improves lung capacity and is a recommended way to help relieve stress.


  • During exercise, the oxygen inhaled converts the calories consumed into energy that fuels the body. This process is referred to as metabolism.
  • When the oxygen supply exceeds the body’s oxygen needs, the body is in an aerobic state. This means there is plenty of oxygen to fuel physical activity/exercise as there are calories to burn.
  • If the oxygen supply falls short of the body’s oxygen needs, the body falls into an anaerobic state.
  • Deprived of oxygen, the body turns to stored fuel in the muscles, known as glycogen.
  • This delivers a powerful burst of energy, but the fuel is quickly spent and fatigue and exhaustion soon follow.
  • Increasing airflow in and out of the lungs can prevent early exhaustion and help the body burn calories more effectively. (Your lungs and exercise. Breathe 2016)

Improved Breathing Benefits

Optimal breathing starts in infancy. When a baby breathes, their belly rises and falls. This facilitates respiration by pushing and pulling the diaphragm – the muscle that separates the lungs and abdominal cavity. When the baby inhales, the belly extends, pulling the diaphragm downward and allowing the lungs to fill with air. When the baby exhales, the belly draws in, pressing the diaphragm upward and forcing air out. As the body ages and the capacity of the lungs increases, individuals shift from belly-breathing to chest-breathing. Chest breathing involves the chest wall muscles with little use of the diaphragm. Chest breathing usually provides enough air for everyday activity but does not fill the lungs.

This is why individuals resort to mouth-breathing or gasping when the oxygen supply is limited. Even those in decent physical shape may be inadvertently undermining efforts by sucking in their stomach to look thinner, depriving themselves of complete inhalations and exhalations. To overcome this, individuals need to re-train their bodies to activate the abdominal muscles when walking. Belly or diaphragmatic breathing can extend the duration of exercise while strengthening the core muscles. (Nelson, Nicole 2012) By increasing core stability, individuals can better support the spine and maintain a healthy posture when walking. This stabilizes the hips, knees, upper back, and shoulders, making the body less prone to strain, instability, and fatigue from unhealthy posture. (Tomas K. Tong et al., 2014)

Breathing Correctly

The inhalation draws the belly out, pulls the diaphragm down, and inflates the lungs. Simultaneously, it extends the ribcage and lengthens the lower spine. This forces the shoulders and collarbone backward, further opening the chest. Exhaling does the reverse.


Start by inhaling and exhaling through the nose, ensuring that the inhalation duration matches the exhalation duration. When picking up the pace, individuals can resort to mouth-breathing, maintaining the same inhalation/exhalation rhythm. At no time should breathing be held in. Learning diaphragmatic breathing takes time, but the following steps can be a starting point:

  • Inhale by inflating the belly fully on a count of five.
  • Allow the lungs to fill, drawing the shoulders back as this happens.
  • Exhale by pulling the belly button toward the spine on a count of five.
  • Use the diaphragm to press the air out of the lungs, keeping the spine erect.
  • Repeat.

If unable to maintain a count of five, individuals can shorten the count or slow the pace of the walk. Individuals in good shape may be able to extend the count. Initially, diaphragmatic breathing may not come naturally, but it will become automatic with practice. Stop and place the hands over the head if short of breath when walking. Breathe in and out deeply and evenly until breathing returns to normal.

Unlocking Wellness


Teng, H. C., Yeh, M. L., & Wang, M. H. (2018). Walking with controlled breathing improves exercise tolerance, anxiety, and quality of life in heart failure patients: A randomized controlled trial. European journal of cardiovascular nursing, 17(8), 717–727. doi.org/10.1177/1474515118778453

Your lungs and exercise. (2016). Breathe (Sheffield, England), 12(1), 97–100. doi.org/10.1183/20734735.ELF121

Tong, T. K., Wu, S., Nie, J., Baker, J. S., & Lin, H. (2014). The occurrence of core muscle fatigue during high-intensity running exercise and its limitation to performance: the role of respiratory work. Journal of sports science & medicine, 13(2), 244–251.

Nelson, Nicole MS, LMT. (2012). Diaphragmatic Breathing: The Foundation of Core Stability. Strength and Conditioning Journal 34(5):p 34-40, October 2012. | DOI: 10.1519/SSC.0b013e31826ddc07

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The information herein on "Maximize Your Fitness Potential with Better Breathing Techniques" is not intended to replace a one-on-one relationship with a qualified health care professional or licensed physician and is not medical advice. We encourage you to make healthcare decisions based on your research and partnership with a qualified healthcare professional.

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