Health Benefits of Holding Breath
Updated: May 25
How to make breath holding a part of your daily routine for better body and brain health
Best exercise for walking ?
What is the easiest way to integrate a health exercise into a daily routine? Do it while walking! What if there was an exercise with significant health benefits, for example lower blood pressure in the long run, which one could perform while walking for just 15 minutes? In fact there is one - breath holding. Before we look at it in detail let’s review several facts about breath holding.
Do you know how long blue whales, air breathing mammals with an average lifespan of around 90 years, could hold their breath? For about one hour . A recent experiment  demonstrated that their heart rate can be as low as 2 beats per minute (BPMs). For comparison, the record for a human non-oxygen assisted breath holding is 11 min 35 sec. Highly trained humans have a resting heart between 40-45 BPMs.
Whales are much bigger than humans, us and them live in completely different environments. Why care? For one reason to start with. More and more research points to lower resting heart rate translating into longer lifespan for humans .
IMPORTANT: Let me clarify one thing before we dive into other benefits of breath holding. This post is NOT about breath holding for freediving. Freediving is a high risk activity which requires strict training protocols and should be always performed under supervision. We will explore a much safer, but not least impactful approach. It can be easily integrated into everyone's daily life.
What are measurable health benefits of breath holding?
I learned this approach from the Oxygen Advantage book by Patrick McKeown . The author provides many reasons for practicing breath holding. The following three resonate strongly with me.
1. Treating some chronic pulmonary conditions, i.e. asthma. For example, swimming has often been recommended to children with asthma as a way of exercising that can build up breath capacity, which can in turn reduce the symptoms of asthma. Swimming naturally requires breath holding. American swimmer Tom Dolan was diagnosed with asthma as a teenager . It has not stopped him from winning a gold medal in swimming at the 1996 Olympics.
2. Getting into the flow state and improving concentration. McKeown brings several convincing examples of slow breathing as a way to enhance meditation outcomes. This translates into higher levels of focus. As regularly demonstrated by the US Marines and golf superstars like Tiger Wood.
3. Breath holding during exercise is a more accessible analog of high altitude training. High altitude training means training at elevation of at least 7000 feet where it is harder to breathe. Famous runners Emil Zatopek and Galen Rupp are known to use breath holding in their training. Rupp was also diagnosed with asthma in his school years. It has not stopped him from competing in three Olympic Games and winning several medals.
Personal experience with breath holding heart rate
Here is the experiment which made me a believer in the benefit of breath holding. At the beginning of this year I introduced a simple routine suggested by McKeown  in my weekly cycling training. After warming up I repeated 7-8 times a 10 second breath hold while cycling with a moderate effort on a stationary bike. One breath hold interval every 2 minutes. In my case 10 sec breath hold required 3 deep recovery breaths following the hold to allow the breath to return to normal. This is the adequate recovery indicator suggested by McKeown.
The graph above shows that my heart rate (yellow line) used to drop during the holds. It then recovered during the oxygen recovery periods. At the peak of the recovery period my legs were in so much pain from rising lactate, that I had to drop power (pink line). Which led to speed dropping as well (green line). You could see also that during this particular training the 5 first holds worked ok. The last two were not particularly productive because my legs were flooded with lactate and I held the breath for less than 10 seconds. I repeated these hold breath sessions twice weekly over a 2 month period.
Here is what has changed between the first breath hold session and the one two month later. My average heart rate during the 16min breath hold session increased from 129 to 133 BPMs (3%), average power increased from 122 to 162 Watts (33%), speed increased from 27 to 30 km/h (11%). Yes, I know that making big conclusions comparing just two sessions is not statistically precise. Still, it persuaded me that this type of training helps cycling efficiency as the heart rate increased only by 3% vs the power gain of 33%.
Simple walking breath holding exercise for health
You do not need to be an aspiring athlete to check if breath holding brings you any benefits. You may try it while walking. Any walking. Here is the routine suggested by McKeown .
1. Walk with a comfortable pace for a few minutes breathing through your nose
2. Keep walking, gently exhale and hold your breath until you feel a medium hunger for air.
3. Resume breathing through the nose trying to normalise it over the next 15 seconds.
4. Repeat breath hold after 30 seconds.
Repeat breath holds 8-10 times. Try to increase the hold time gradually.
If you repeat this exercise regularly you should be able to increase gradually the number of steps which you make while holding your breath. This is an indicator that you are making progress. You also should experience better sleep, having more energy and overall improvement in your fitness.