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Making the most out of every breath

More than half a billion. That's the number of times the average person will inspire (draw air into the lungs) in a lifetime. And though most of us rarely give breathing a second thought, this constant exchange of carbon dioxide for fresh oxygen fuels every cell in the body.

Jennifer Ryan, PT, DPT, a cardiovascular and pulmonary physical therapist at Rush University Medical Center, shares recommendations she gives patients:

1. When you're out of breath or stressed, try belly breathing.

"Whether you're trying to catch a breath during intense exercise or feeling stressed by traffic, belly breathing helps," says Ryan. "It allows you to draw in a higher volume of air, and it's calming."

Here's how she suggests newbies begin: With one hand on your belly so you'll feel what happens, do a quick sniff, sniff — like a dog. "Sniffing wakes up your diaphragm, the muscle that separates your lungs from the organs in your abdomen," Ryan says. Continue breathing so your belly moves up and down, but more slowly. It also elicits the body's relaxation response, helping relieve muscle tension.

2. Listen to mom: Straighten up.

If the muscles in your rib cage and thorax aren't properly aligned, they can't pull in the volume of air needed to keep cells oxygenated. "When you're slumped at your computer, your lungs don't have room to expand," says Ryan.

So, if you sit for long periods, try this simple tip for correcting your posture: Roll a hand towel to a diameter of two inches and position it on your chair so it's right in front of the bones that hurt when you're sitting on a bicycle seat. The towel helps keep your pelvis and spine aligned so that your rib cage can expand.

3. Find your best breathing pattern, and stay hydrated.

As you do your 20 minutes (or more!) of daily exercise, find the breathing pattern that feels right for you. "It's a myth that you have to breathe through your nose and not your mouth," Ryan says.

"Listen to your body and breathe in the way that's most comfortable." If you do breathe through your mouth, you'll lose more moisture, so staying hydrated is especially important. Hydration keeps the mucus lining of the airways working to clear out germs, pollen and dust.

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