The Good-for-Your-Gut Exercise You’re Not Doing But Should
When you think of exercises for your gut, you’re probably imagining abs exercises that can strengthen and tone your core. But what if we told you that you could remedy some gut health issues with a different kind of exercise—a deep breathing exercise?
Diaphragmatic breathing—also known as belly breathing or deep breathing—is a practice that can benefit your physical and mental health.
The diaphragm is the muscle used for breathing that’s located at the bottom of your lungs When practicing diaphragmatic breathing, you’re consciously using your diaphragm to take deep breaths. This can help slow your breathing rate, decrease oxygen demand, and help you eventually use less effort and energy to breathe.1
This slow, deep intentional abdominal breathing is done through the nose and sends air deep into the diaphragm until the belly rises. It can have immediate benefits on your body’s relaxation response. Belly breathing has been shown to activate the brain, respiratory and cardiovascular systems, as well as the gastrointestinal system through the autonomic nervous system—which takes care of the body processes that don’t require conscious thought.
Here's how deep breathing can benefit your health
It can reduce stress.
One review of studies found that subjects in three studies showed positive effects of diaphragmatic breathing exercises on stress—from biomarkers in respiratory rates to self-reported quality of life improvements.2
It can help improve exercise capacity.
Some studies have shown that doing this type of breathing can improve a subject’s exercise capacity, particularly for athletes who do endurance training.
It can help the gastrointestinal system.
Using this type of breath training can help with chronic constipation, diarrhea, and feelings of urgency, bloating, as well as alleviate some Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD) symptoms. That’s because this breathing practice activates the parasympathetic system which relaxes the body—thus making some digestive system issues less likely due to a panicked or stress response.3
It can alleviate pain.
Practicing diaphragmatic breathing can help reduce pain, according to studies and experts. It can help those with back pain minimize stress, as well as help reduce abdominal pain, especially in those who experience gut-health-related issues.4
It can help with anxiety.
Diaphragmatic breathing can activate the body’s relaxation response. This can be particularly helpful to someone who experiences stress due to GI-conditions and how they impact their quality of life.3
It might help improve concentration.
A small study found that subjects who practiced diaphragmatic breathing exercises showed improvement on sustained attention, as well as lowering levels of the stress hormone cortisol.5
It can help lower blood pressure.
Recent research found that doing deep breathing exercises like this for six weeks helped lower study subjects’ blood pressure by promoting the production of nitric oxide which helps widen blood vessels and promotes good blood flow.6
Try This Gut-Health Exercise: Diaphragmatic Breathing Tips
Lie down on your back on the floor or a bed to try this for the first time.
Make sure there’s minimal movement in the chest by placing one hand on your chest.
Place the other hand on your belly.
Inhale through the nose for four seconds.
Hold your breath for two seconds.
Exhale slowly through the mouth for six seconds with pursed relaxed lips.
Do this series for five minutes to 15 minutes.
Take a few moments to regroup after you’re done and stand up slowly in case you’re lightheaded.7
This breathing skill can become effortless over time when practiced. You can do it sitting or lounging or in any position, but it can be easier to get a sense of the breath in your belly while lying down at first.
Practice for 15 minutes a day–approximately six breaths per minute–for a few weeks to experience benefits in your mental and physical health.5
1 “Diaphragmatic Breathing.” Cleveland Clinic. (Reviewed March 2022) my.clevelandclinic.org
2 Hopper, Susan. “Effectiveness of diaphragmatic breathing for reducing physiological and psychological stress in adults: a quantitative systematic review.” 17, Sept. 2019, JBI Database of Systematic Reviews and Implementation Reports. pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov
3 University of Michigan Health. “Diaphragmatic Breathing for GI Patients.” uofmhealth.org
4 Manolaki, Semira. “Relaxation Techniques in Low Back Pain Patients: A Randomized Controlled Trial.” 2021. Journal of Long-Term Effects of Medical Implants. Pubmed.gov.
5 Ma, Xiao. “The Effect of Diaphragmatic Breathing on Attention, Negative Affect and Stress in Healthy Adults.” Frontiers in Psychology. 2017, Jun 6. PubMed Central®
6 Aubrey, Allison. “Daily 'breath training' can work as well as medicine to reduce high blood pressure.” 2022, September 20. NPR.
7 Hamasaki, H. “Effects of Diaphragmatic Breathing on Health: A Narrative Review.” 2020, Oct. 15. Medicines Basel. Pubmed.gov.