My daughter is home for a few days – the flu has meant that her workplace doesn’t need her around, giving her bugs to others. Working in a busy corporate office most of her days are spent in front of a computer and sitting in meetings. Hunched over day after day, I’m reminding her that this means she doesn’t breathe well. As such, her lungs are susceptible to the build-up of phlegm that is particularly worse when we get the flu. Yesterday, because she was well on the mend, I had her stretching over the Swiss-ball, doing her deep breathing. If you have a Swiss-ball at home, or even an old rolled-arm couch, then you might want to do this over the weekend too.
I never gave my lung function a thought when I went into menopause. For decades I’ve been a regular exerciser and one of the known benefits of regular exercise is that it stimulates our breathing. But when I began to experience more breathlessness in my early 50’s and I was working at a desk a lot more than I ever had in my life, I began to get more curious about my lung function.
Researchers have discovered that the lungs play a far more complex role in mammalian bodies than previously thought, especially in middle-age females. It seems that our lovely lungs don’t just facilitate respiration – they also play a key role in red blood cell production and platelet function, along with bone marrow. They also contain oestrogen receptors too. This means that our lungs are also affected as we move through menopause. But the real issue is our ageing. I always explain to women that our menopause transition is heralding in a number of changes in tissue structure and function which are related to ageing (although we still feel young, our body is changing with age). One of these age-related changes is how our lungs age as well. As we get older, lung function reduces. This means that we have to purposefully focus on deep breathing every day.
Lung function reduces with age.
But there is another cause for poor lung function in mid-life too. Many women work in sedentary jobs, hence lung function may also change when we sit hunched over computers or we are sitting at desks throughout our day. If this is you today, can you focus on standing up every hour, pulling your tummy muscles in tight and lifting your arms above your head and really getting some function in those ageing lungs of yours? You can even go somewhere quiet in your break or this evening, and try this stretch in the image below. It’s from the stretching programme I have in the Rebuild My Fitness 12 week programme, Designed for women to get back into exercising again or to understand the best exercise for them in mid-life, it is packed full of information specific to our changing muscles, tendons and cardiovascular system, which includes our heart, blood vessels and lungs.
The role of the lungs and how they contribute to our circulation and more importantly, tissue oxygenation and energy levels, is more powerful than previously thought. And not only is this important for our ageing lungs, but also for losing fat too. When I was trying to lose my menopause belly fat (and in post-menopause, it continues to be work in progress for many women, because we also produce some testosterone in ageing ovaries if we still have them), I began to focus on the physiology that I had taught students for years, and that is that when it comes to tissue oxygenation and fat-loss, our breathing matters. Because fat is ‘burned’ in our lovely mitochondrial cells.
I’m always talking about our lovely mitochondrial cells in my coaching groups. These cells store oxygen. Located deep inside our muscles, lungs and heart, mitochondrial cells are the ‘power-house’ of your cell, because this is where fats and glucose are turned into energy.
If we can breathe better, then the exchange of oxygen is enhanced into these mitochondrial cells. This is important in the lungs because one of the factors that contributes to the effectiveness of our breathing are the small intercostal muscles that lie between your rib-cage. These muscles are losing elastin and collagen fibres too, so they need to be stimulated and stretched. Especially, when we are sitting most of the day. Look at the image below – can you see if you are hunched over a desk all day or you are in a job that is always making you bend forward (e.g. housekeeping or nursing jobs) then those lovely muscle fibres between your ribs (your intercostal muscle fibres) become lengthened at the back and constricted at the front. When they are constricted at the front, your lungs don’t fill up as effectively as they should as we move through menopause.
But there’s more to deep breathing too – and that is that when we focus on our breathing techniques, we also improve fat loss. And for women with lots of belly fat and diaphragmatic fat, lung expansion can be reduced up to 40%, because of the location of our fat. That’s why in the MyMT ‘Transform Me’ programme,I have lots of information about better breathing for women wanting to lose their belly fat. When we move more oxygen into mitochondrial cells this means that fat-burning mechanisms are improved too. This process is known as lipolysis, or simply, fat oxidation.
In this day and age of continued emphasis on high intensity activity, we are often forgetting about the role of aerobic exercise. I find this in the fitness industry as well. But it’s really important for our changing health, including respiratory health, to improve oxygen getting into our mitochondrial cells.
When we have more mitochondrial cells, this improves fat burning too. Some of you will have had children who trained in competitive swimming or have been rowers. Over the years, improved research in sports training has led coaches towards doing ‘Long Slow Distance’ training, especially over the years when young athletes are going through puberty. There’s a reason for this. As young athletes move through puberty, they are developing larger muscles. These muscles hold the key to the fitness of young athletes because they hold mitochondrial cells. So when coaches build up long duration aerobic activity, it helps the muscles to develop more and larger mitochondrial cells, therefore, allowing the muscles to hold more oxygen and improve fitness. With aerobic training, we also build up our lung function capability too. Nice steady-state breathing that helps to boost our immune health and our energy levels too. When we do rhythmic activities and these activities are not too intense, then we get more OXYGEN into our lungs and we feel more energised. We also improve our fitness. It’s why I love promoting more swimming to MyMT members. It’s so fantastic for our overall health and cardiovascular system as we age.
When we are busy and concentrating more, or rushing around doing everything that we do in our day, we forget about the efficiency of our breathing. Not only do we need to focus on this throughout the day, it’s also why I promote aerobic activity to women in the MyMT programmes. If we are always doing anaerobic (without oxygen) higher intensity activity such as HIIT [High Intensity Interval Training], every day, then this makes us breathe faster. When we breathe faster, we also breathe more shallowly. So high intensity exercise, needs to be balanced up with lower to moderate intensity activity that focuses on better breathing. I love this photo of Julie in Canada, who did the MyMT Circuit Breaker programme and realised that she wasn’t doing enough aerobic exercise to help reduce her anxiety, depression and improve her sleep. When she sent this photo of her undertaking her very first 10km walk/jog event, I was so stoked for her.
Aerobic activity stimulates the production of more mitochondria in our muscle fibres.
If you are mainly sedentary in your working week, then it would be great if you made a plan to do some aerobic, steady-state exercise over the weekend and focus on your deep breathing. Breathing better is something that we all need to do more of. For those of you wanting an abdominal workout, then the added bonus is that if you pull in your deep belly muscles when you breathe, your abdominal and lower back muscles will thank you too.
Have a wonderful weekend and I’m always at the end of the email if you have questions about the programmes and how they might help you [my email address is on the Contact page on the website]. If you’ve been inside for most of the week, then get outside with your exercise too. Whatever the weather! It’s warmer in the Northern Hemisphere and I know for those of you in the Southern Hemisphere where I am, the cold weather has arrived, so wrap-up warm and don’t let that stop you either. 🚴♀️🙂🧘♀️
Dr Wendy Sweet [PhD/ Women’s Healthy Ageing Researcher & MyMT Founder & Coach]