How to increase O2 by increasing CO2?
“This is Sasha. How can I help you?” I answered an early morning call.
The caller explained that after reading The Oxygen Advantage book, he tried to breathe nasally during his workouts, but it did not improve his health. He was considering taking the Breathing Normalization course. Mark lived in Boulder, close to my office, and I agreed to meet with him the same morning.
“Sorry for my outfit,” Entering the room, Mark pointed at the sweaty spots on his hoodie. “I’d been sprinting outside,” he explained, vacuuming air into his mouth in between words.
Mark looked fit, well-proportioned and muscular. Obviously, fitness played a big part in his life. After a brief conversation about the Buteyko Method, I measured Mark’s Positive Maximum Pause. It was only 7 seconds. This 60-year-old man had muscles of a 40-year-old and respiration of an 80-year-old.
“How is your health?”
“Fatigue is a problem,” Mark sighed and sipped from a can of Coke he had brought with him. “I also have allergies - they are pretty bad! - and I feel breathless almost every time I exercise. I am actually feeling a bit out of air now.”
He reached into his pocket and pulled out a rescue inhaler. After taking a puff, he shared his concern that the Buteyko approach might require lowering the intensity of his workouts. I confirmed his suspicion.
“Look at your situation this way,” I suggested. “Your breathing is injured. Let’s compare it with an injured leg. Would you sprint if your leg was broken? Of course, not! You mend it first, and then you start walking. Later, you might try jogging, and only when the function of your leg is fully restored, you will sprint again. Right?”
“Just like a broken leg, broken breathing can be damaged further by exercises. Heal your respiration first, and then start using it intensely.”
Mark looked unconvinced.
“I am very fond of high-intensity interval training. At my age, I am supposed to have a maximum heart rate of 160 beats per minute, but when I exercise, it goes up to 185. This is like a healthy 35-year-old!” He kicked his fist up into the air; his fingers still clenching his red plastic inhaler.
I cracked his zeal: “A high heart rate can deprive you of oxygen and invite a heart attack or other health trouble. Typically, the heart rate is proportional to the amount of air we inhale—the more I breathe, the faster my heart beats. I train people to breathe less while exercising—as a result, their heart rate slows down. Ideally, you should be able to run fast but maintain a heart rate of only 120 beats per minute or so.
It seemed that Mark was calculating something.
“120 beats per minute? This is like a 100-year- old!” He concluded. “Thank you for your time, but I am not ready for your training.”
A few months later, my computer screen popped up an email: You have received an order. Mark had visited my website and paid for the Breathing Normalization course without even discussing it with me. I dialed his number and asked why he had changed his mind.
“My wife!” He exclaimed. “She said she is not going to tolerate my workouts anymore. Recently, I was taken to ER from my gym.”
We scheduled our first session. Our primary goal was to turn Mark's fitness activities into a health improvement tool.
The first step was to stop exercising. Dr. Buteyko did not recommend physical exercises to adults with strong symptoms whose PMPs were below 20 seconds. Their respiration is too feeble to support active movements and therefore has to be boosted first by breathing exercises in a seated position. I remember a client who had epilepsy. When she followed this rule, she was able to avoid seizures for months, but when she exercised during the times when her PMP was about 15 seconds or lower, her seizures popped up.
“You don’t mean I have to quit all my workouts?” Mark’s eyes widened.
“That’s precisely what I mean.”
“Can I move at all?”
“Your PMP is only 4 seconds. Until it becomes about five times longer, only slow and careful movements are acceptable.”
As a retired sergeant, Mark cherished discipline and had an abundance of time. He diligently did three seated sessions of breathing exercises a day; he also lightened his diet, started taping his mouth at night and eliminated most occurrences of mouth breathing except when talking. In three weeks, his PMP was fluctuating between 15 and 25 seconds. It was time to move to the second phase of his training.
I suggested daily walks and defined the goal: build up your respiratory strength to be able to move for an hour breathing quietly through your nose. I explained that exercising in a gym is preferable, but Mark refused. The siren of spring was luring him to the realm of blooming trees and chirping birds. Understandable! I also advised him to walk on flat ground but it was rare in his Rocky Mountain neighborhood.
“A hill is not a hindrance for an athlete,” Mark declared.
Instead of debating, I decided to let him check on what was doable.
There were other, more principal conditions I was going to stand firm on. The first term was to stop using a rescue inhaler preventively. “Don’t use your rescue inhaler unless you need to rescue yourself,” I suggested.
“But I need to open up my lungs!”
He always took a puff or two from his inhaler before a workout. The drug widened his airways and numbed them to prevent breathlessness. Without breathlessness or much of it, Mark was able to over-breathe freely, losing a great deal of CO2 and worsening his health. In addition, the rescue inhaler camouflaged his real situation, making Mark believe that he was able to perform better than his lungs allowed. Mark’s workouts typically resulted in breathing trouble.
“You don’t need to open your lungs,” I said. “To increase oxygenation of your body, you need to breathe less.”
My second instruction was to prevent symptoms naturally. Mark needed to choose a pace and intensity of his fitness activity which would not trigger breathlessness or any other symptoms. Basically, he needed to slow down.
“A workout should make you feel better, not worse!” I reminded him.
The third directive was to avoid inhaling or exhaling through his mouth and keep his respiration silent.
“Completely quiet?” Mark was astonished. “You know, it’s impossible—right?”
I backed up. “A sound of a new, intact refrigerator is okay but not an old, broken furnace.”
Mark began his daily loops around the neighborhood. First, he strolled downhill. During this part of his walk, sustaining silent nasal breathing was effortless. The way back home was more like a steeplechase. While walking on a flat surface, his respiration would become increasingly audible and then, combating the deterrent of uphill climbing, it would turn into wheezing, mimicking a hum of a jet ready to take off.
“The sound of your breathing is the language of your body,” I revealed my top Russian secret to this military man. “Pay attention and decipher it. Noisy breathing is a warning sign indicating that your body is approaching the borderline of its safe country. You have to respond by slowing down or even stopping for a minute and hushing your breathing. If you keep pushing through, hyperventilation is unavoidable.”
Many of my clients had no problem with implementing these instructions, but for Mark, to take it easy was extremely hard. He kept marching, missing SOS signals from his body, ignoring its amplifying voice, and ending up reaching for his rescue inhaler because he was out of breath and scared. There were other negative factors impacting his respiration: the weather was hot and abnormally humid; on top of it, pollen pulled a trigger on his allergy. “I declare a defeat,” he finally proclaimed and agreed to exercise in a gym.
Clarification: Exercising outdoors is preferable to indoors. Nevertheless, for fragile breathers, fitness alfresco can turn into a strike on their respiration, causing an explosion of symptoms. At the beginning of Breathing Normalization training, it is better to exercise in an environment with controlled temperature, humidity, and air quality, as well as pace and intensity of movements. The best option is a gymnasium, but if you cannot stand it, exercising inside your home is acceptable.
I advised Mark to start exercising on a treadmill or elliptical. In 2009 when my husband, Thomas was in a situation analogous to Mark’s, he was experimenting with workout equipment in his gym and discovered that the elliptical machine with arms had the greatest effect on his breathing. Since then, he and I have checked this approach with many of our clients and learned that it worked well. The treadmill is valuable, but an elliptical cross trainer with arms provides a full-body workout while staying within the parameters of low-impact cardiovascular training, which is ideal for respiration. In 2009, Thomas’s breathing permitted him to exercise only at the lowest level of intensity, but in a few years, he was able to do his daily hour on the elliptical on high-intensity programs.
Now, I was about to pass this precious know-how to my athletic client. “Chose the easiest setting,” I said.
Mark raised his eyebrows.
“Remember, your goal is to exercise for an hour while keeping your breathing quiet. If you cannot keep it quiet, slow down or halt for a few minutes.” I reiterated my previous guidelines and added one more. “Please don’t eat anything before exercising; a cup of tea or coffee is fine.”
“Why?” He raised his eyebrows again. “Before going to a gym, I usually eat a hard boiled egg, Greek yogurt, and a tuna sandwich.”
“Give it up! Intermittent fasting blended with a workout sizably heightens CO2. And please don’t consume anything at the gym except for plain water.”
This time around, Mark’s problem wasn’t his loud breathing but boredom—walking in a gym without “doing anything” was uneventful.
“Do you like to read?” I asked.
His eyes sparkled. “Yes! Biographies are my favorite.”
“I enjoy reading as well but don’t have time for it,” I shared. “Besides, I sit during my work hours. Adding more sitting for reading doesn’t work for my health. So I buy audiobooks and listen to them while walking. Why don’t you try this?”
This prescription worked. Soon, Mark was able to exercise on the elliptical machine almost every morning, walking steadily, breathing quietly, and without using his inhaler.
He started at twenty minutes. Before and after each workout, Mark was measuring his breathing. Typically, his gym time increased his Positive Maximum Pause by 5-15 seconds, often moving it up to 35-40 seconds. These boosted numbers were declining during the course of his day, but the trajectory of his morning and daytime PMPs kept growing. It took the sergeant only a couple of weeks to advance his respiratory health to the point of being able to exercise for an entire hour while maintaining silent breathing.
Mark and I counted his gym time as a double session of breathing exercises. This meant that besides his workout he had to do only one seated session of breathing exercises at night. Now, his daytime was free of breathing exercises and mostly free of breathing difficulties as well. Mark told me that he was feeling energetic and well throughout most of his days—and this was without soda. Almost every morning, he would get up before sunrise and drive to the gym, where he had a fabulous time exercising lightly and listening to captivating books. By the time he was back home, he felt starving. Before this new schedule, he often had to force himself to eat. Now, while watching the news, he was savoring his bowl of oatmeal. After eating and taking a cold shower, which was also a part of his training, he was ready for a new day, often feeling enthusiastically even about the most ordinary tasks and events. “My wife says,” Mark shared with me, “That I am happy for no reason.”
When Mark accomplished the “one-hour goal,” he started adding breathing exercises to his workouts to upsurge their positive effect on his health. Doing breath holds, humming or wearing a Buteyko belt augmented his numbers. Then, he began diversifying and intensifying his fitness activities to match the demands of his muscles. Sometimes, instead of walking on the elliptical, he was lifting weights, swimming, and he even tried light yoga. Eventually, Mark’s respiration became strong enough to support almost any workouts he desired. In several months after the beginning of his Breathing Normalization course, Mark was able to resume sprinting outside and other forms of his high-intensity interval training. Nonetheless, he still needed to be vigilant of his inhales and exhales and to downshift every time his movements were becoming undue to his respiration.
The following winter, I received a phone call.
“This is Sasha. Good Morning.”
There was no reply, just a sound of deadly heavy, inhales and exhales. I was astounded.
Then, I’ve heard a laugh.
“I got you!” Mark exclaimed smugly. “I’m fine! Just finished shoveling snow on the roof of my house and decided to give a call to my teacher.”
I listened to his breathing: it was quiet; it seemed that Mark was even inhaling through his nose in between words.
“I want to let you know,” Mark said finishing our chat, “I don’t need your help anymore. Together, we’ve created the oxygen advantage.”
I smiled. “Mission accomplished!”