Sunday, November 6, 2011


In 2008 the German free diver Tom Seitas was able to suspend his breath for 17 minutes while submerged in a tank of water, a world record.  Most of us would only last a minute or two under those conditions.  People trapped by an earthquake sometimes go for days without food or water but a constant supply of air is essential for human life. 

The importance of breathing is recognized by practitioners of yoga; the Sanskrit word prana means “breath” or “life force.”  Breathing techniques called pranayama are a staple in hatha yoga classes.  In Western culture, however, the importance of breathing properly is largely ignored.  One exception to this rule is Dr. Andrew Weil, who recommends taking lots of long, deep, slow breaths and provides breathing exercises on his web site. 

Older people sometimes have shortness of breath or congestion in the lungs.  Individuals who smoke, suffer from allergies, or live in areas where there are pollutants in the air are more susceptible to these problems.  The inability to breathe is a potential threat to all physiological functions that depend on getting enough oxygen.   Even otherwise healthy people, like Jack LaLanne, have died of pneumonia.  One strategy to enhance oxygen intake is to use a decongestant, such as Mucinex and its clones.  For those who prefer a non-pharmaceutical approach, there are inhalers; the one I use is called POWER-Breathe.

Invented in the UK by physiology professor Alison McConnell, the POWER-Breathe is designed to strengthen the muscles that control breathing.  Its original intent was to improve exercise tolerance in patients with respiratory illness but it was soon shown to improve the performance of athletes as well.  To use the POWER-Breathe you inhale against resistance and exhale freely.  An adjustable knob allows you to increase resistance as your muscles get stronger.   I bought mine from Creative Health Products, which also services my heart rate monitor.  I can’t be sure that it has improved my athletic condition, though a lot of runners are swear by it, but I haven’t had a chest cold since I started using it.

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