What if there were something you could do right this minute to improve how engaged, productive, and creative you are at work? As it turns out, there is, and you’re already doing it—breathing.
Breathing transforms a stretchy exercise session into a holistic rebalancing. Meditation itself is grounded in breath. Which means the easiest stress-relieving and mind-enhancing exercise we can do is simply breathing better.
A BREATH OF FRESH AIR AT WORK
Major companies are making investments in their employees’ health and wellness, which in some cases includes offering yoga and meditation at work. Here at Upping Your Elvis, our creative leadership company, we’ve found the majority of senior executives we’ve worked with say that learning how to breathe properly has changed their lives.
Indeed, for such a simple habit the benefits can be surprising. Bill Reilly, marketing director of Apple Pay, said in a Harvard Business Review profile that by taking three deep breaths each time he sat down at his desk helped him relax during the course of a busy day. Over time, those three breaths turned into several minutes a day, then into a 30-minute meditation session. Reilly found it rebooted his perspective and helped him come up with new ideas and solutions to problems.
Rimma Muchnik, a strategic management consultant, recently learned how to breathe well, too. “Type A personalities, especially those in banking and finance, tend not to be as open to new things like this,” she told Crain’s. “I liked that it wasn’t
yoga-y. There wasn’t any deep discussion about the universe. I sleep better. I am more focused and productive at work; my blood pressure has gone down.”
DEEP BREATHS, LESS STRESS
Recent research has shown the positive impact deep breathing has on our bodies’ ability to deal with stress. Stress has been estimated to cost employers $300 billion a year in health care and missed work.
In a recent survey, 21% of employees reported stress as the main source of errors and missed deadlines at work; 15.5% had difficulty getting along with colleagues; 14.9% missed days at work; and 14.4% said stress made them late. It’s no wonder the World Health Organization called stress “the health epidemic of the 21st century.”
The ability to manage your emotions and remain calm under pressure directly impacts your productivity and creativity. The emotional intelligence service TalentSmart conducted research with over a million people and found that 90% of top performers are skilled in remaining calm under stress.
Luckily for us, we can all learn to breathe better and keep stress in check—anytime, anyplace, anywhere.
THE SCIENCE OF BREATHING
Breathing correctly means supplying our bodies with the right amount of oxygen and replenishing the brain and other vital organs with essential nutrients. Our cardiopulmonary system plays a major role in moving those nutrients around—which means it’s the highway transporting all the toxins in our systems, too. Breathing, in other words, can help us control the traffic, keeping the good stuff moving while clearing the rubbish off the road.
We each take about 20,000 breaths a day. The average human respiratory rate is 30 to 60 breaths per minute at birth, decreasing to 12 to 20 breaths per minute as adults.
As babies, we all take deep, relaxing breaths from our abdomen. If you’ve ever watched a small child sleeping, you’ve seen their belly rises and falls. But as we get older, the way we breathe changes. Especially when we’re stressed or alarmed, our bodies operate on our more primitive “fight, flight, or freeze” instincts, and we take short, fast breaths to prepare for danger.
But prolonged periods of stress mean we constantlybreathe like this, only ever using the top third of our lungs. It’s the bottom third of our lungs, however, that supply two-thirds of our breathing capacity. So shallow, thoracic breaths mean we aren’t getting what we need to function at optimum level. As a result, our cognitive abilities go slack, we have trouble staying alert and connecting with others, and often just have less fun.
On the flip side, when we breathe deeply we’re likelier to have more energy and feel less stressed. Our posture and digestion can even improve.
HOW TO BREATHE BETTER
There are plenty of ways to breathe more deeply, but one popular approach has been developed by the holistic health specialist and sleep expert Dr. Andrew Weil. Called the 4-7-8 method, it helps calm the mind and relax the muscles. Here’s how to do it.
1. Breathe in through your nose for a count of four, feel your belly expanding.
2. Hold that breath for a count of seven.
3. Then blow out through your mouth for a slow count of eight. If you can, put your tongue behind your bottom teeth and making a whooshing sound as you exhale.
Weil says the method works because it allows the lungs to become fully charged with air, allowing more oxygen into the body and leading to a state of mental and physical calm.
“You have to do this two times a day religiously,” Weil says. “It will become a wonderful way to help you fall asleep. You can do it more often throughout the day.”
The best part, Weil adds, is that it “takes almost no time, requires no equipment, and can be done anywhere . . . After about four to six weeks you will see wonderful changes in your body.”
And as McKinsey & Co. partner Michael Rennie has pointed out, “What’s good for the spirit is good for the bottom line.”