Stop scrolling. Now inhale slowly, concentrating on expanding your lungs, to a count of five. Exhale, just as slowly and deliberately, as you count to five.
You might find that, in just that 10 seconds, you suddenly feel just a little bit more relaxed or centred. Follow the same practice for 20 minutes a few times a week and – according to the research – you might not just reap the benefits of feeling calmer. You may also be helping to prevent the onset of various diseases, including, a recent study has suggested, even Alzheimer’s disease.
The benefits of breathing exercises – sometimes called “breathwork” – have been recognised for millennia. In more recent decades, scientific studies seem to support what people in many cultures, particularly in Asia, have long practiced: that deliberate breathing may help to improve a variety of health conditions, including hypertension, stress, anxiety, and even chronic pain.
In the latest study, researchers measured biomarkers in blood plasma that are associated with a higher risk of developing Alzheimer’s, particularly amyloid beta 40 and 42. Half of the 108 participants were told to try to bring themselves to a place of calm by imagining a serene scene, listening to relaxing sounds, and closing their eyes – essentially, mindfulness meditation. The goal was to decrease their heart rate oscillations, encouraging their heart rate to have a steadier, more consistent beat.
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The other group followed a breathing exercise on a computer screen – when a square rose over the course of five seconds, they inhaled, and when it dropped for five seconds, they exhaled. This kind of deep, slow breathing has been found to increase heart rate oscillations – making the time interval between heart beats more variable (hence a higher “heart rate variability”). Both groups practiced the technique twice a day, for 20 to 40 minutes each time, for five weeks.
When they looked at participants’ blood samples four weeks into their practice, the results came as a “surprise”, says Mara Mather, professor of gerontology, psychology and biomedical engineering at the University of Southern California and one of authors of the study. The breathing exercises aimed at increasing heart rate variability decreased levels of amyloid beta. The mindfulness exercises, which decreased heart rate variability, made those levels higher.