How to Breathe for Better Walking

Breathing woman

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Breathing is something we don't think much about until we are short of breath. Exercise is one such scenario in which breathing can quicken and become labored if you are not breathing correctly.

And, despite what may tell you, there is a right and wrong way to breath when exercising, most especially when you are walking or speed walking.

Controlling the flow of your breath not only improves your endurance and cardiovascular health, but it can also boost your metabolism, mood, and energy levels. By contrast, breathing incorrectly leads to rapid fatigue and exhaustion.

By taking the time to learn proper breathing technique, you can make this healthy form of outdoor exercise all the more enjoyable.

The Physiology of Breathing

Our lungs are as important to exercise as are our muscles, bones, and tendons. The oxygen we inhale is used to convert the calories we consume into the energy that fuels exercise. This process is referred to as metabolism.

When your oxygen supply exceeds your oxygen needs, you are said to be in an aerobic state. In short, you have plenty of oxygen to fuel exercise as long as there are calories there to burn.

On the other hand, if your oxygen needs fall short of your oxygen supply, you fall into an anaerobic state. When this happens, the body, deprived of oxygen, will turn to stored fuel in muscles known as glycogen. While this can deliver a powerful burst of energy, the fuel is quickly spent; fatigue and exhaustion will soon follow.

To the end, increasing the flow of air in and out of the lungs can prevent early exhaustion and help you burn calories more effectively along the way.

Breathing Aims and Benefits

Optimal breathing actually starts at infancy. If you ever look at a baby breathing, you will notice that the child's belly will rise and fall. This action facilitates respiration by alternately pushing and pulling the diaphragm (the muscle the separates the lungs and abdominal cavity).

When the baby inhales, the belly will extend, pulling the diaphragm downward and allowing the lungs to fill with air. When the baby exhales, the belly will pull in, pressing the diaphragm upward and forcing air out of the lungs.

As we get older and the capacity of our lungs increases, we will shift from belly-breathing to chest-breathing. Chest-breathing involving the muscles of the chest wall rather than the diaphragm.

While chest-breathing usually provides enough air for everyday activity, it doesn't fill the lungs all that fully. It is why we resort to mouth-breathing or gasping when our oxygen supply runs short.

Even if you are good physical shape, you may be inadvertently undermining your efforts by sucking your stomach to look thinner, depriving yourself of complete inhalations and exhalations.

To overcome this, re-train yourself to activate the abdominal muscles when walking. While it may seem a little odd at first, belly-breathing (also known as diaphragmatic breathing) can extend your exercise duration while strengthening your all-important core muscles.

It is the latter effect that is especially important to walkers. By increasing core stability, you can better support the spine and maintain ideal posture when walking, which in turn stabilizes the hips, knees, upper back, and shoulders, making you less prone to the strain, instability, and fatigue that arise from poor posture.

How to Breath Correctly

The breathing cycle starts with the inhalation. Drawing the belly out pulls the diaphragm down and inflates the lungs. It simultaneously extends the ribcage and lengthens the lower spine. This, in turn, forces the shoulders and collarbone backward, further opening the chest. To exhale, you would simply do the reverse.

When walking, start by inhaling and exhaling through the nose, ensuring that the duration of the inhalation matches the duration of the exhalation.

If picking up the pace, you can resort to mouth-breathing, keeping with the same inhalation/exhalation rhythm. At no time should you ever hold your breath.

Diaphragmatic breathing takes time to learn but involves the following simple steps:

  1. Inhale by inflating your belly fully on a count of five.
  2. Allow your lungs to fill completely, drawing your shoulders back as you do.
  3. Exhale by pulling your belly button toward the spine on a count of five.
  4. Use your diaphragm to press the air out of the lungs, keeping your spine erect.
  5. Repeat.

If you are unable to maintain a count of five, you can either shorten the count or slow the pace of your walk. If you are in good shape, you may be able to extend the count. Belly-breathing may not come naturally at first, but, if you persist, it will soon become automatic.

If you find yourself short of breath when walking, stop and place your hands over your head. Breathe in and out deeply and evenly until your breathing returns to normal.

Do not continue walking if you ever feel faint, develop a rapid heartbeat, break into a cold sweat, or feel nauseous. Sit down and rest until you are able to return home safely and call your doctor. If the symptoms persist or worsen, call 911.

A Word From Verywell

Belly-breathing is not just for walks. You can practice at home on your off days or by joining a pranayama breathing class at a local yoga studio.

To practice, lie on your back on the floor and place your hand on your belly. Follow the same steps as above for five to 15 minutes, feeling your belly rise and fall as you do. The practice not only improves lung capacity, but it is also a great way to relieve stress.

Diaphragmatic breathing is also used for people with reduced lung capacity, such as those with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

3 Sources
Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Teng H, Yeh M, Wang M. Walking with controlled breathing improves exercise tolerance, anxiety, and quality of life in heart failure patients: A randomized controlled trial. Eur J Cardiovasc Nurs. 2018;17(8):717-727. doi:10.1177/1474515118778453

  2. Your lungs and exercise. Breathe (Sheff). 2016;12(1):97-100. doi:10.1183%2F20734735.ELF121

  3. Tong T, Wu S, Nie J, Baker J, Lin H. The occurrence of core muscle fatigue during high-intensity running exercise and its limitation to performance: the role of respiratory work. J Sports Sci Med. 2014;13(2):244-51.

Additional Reading

By Wendy Bumgardner
Wendy Bumgardner is a freelance writer covering walking and other health and fitness topics and has competed in more than 1,000 walking events.