From Breathing to Sleep, Mindset to Technology

By Min Zan

I am lying down on a table, and a machine is scanning my body to check how healthy I am. Above me, a machine is making a soft buzzing sound, and it is using special X-rays to figure out the amount of fat, bone, and muscle in my body.
The news is not so good. According to the scan, I have eight kilogrammes of extra body fat for someone who is 33 years old. Also, my upper body doesn’t look like I’ve been to the gym in a while. The scan tells me that I should try to become leaner and stronger. Recently, while playing tennis, I realized that my ability to do aerobic exercise has decreased a lot.
Clearly, I need to become more fit. The problem is my job involves sitting a lot, and I don’t always have time to exercise. This got me thinking: what if there were ways to make my workouts more effective or even get fitter without moving much? I’ve heard about the possibility of getting fitter by sleeping more or using special shoes to run faster. Some people even talk about a magic “exercise pill” or building muscles just by thinking about it. So, I decided to explore some easy ways to improve my fitness, starting with the simplest exercise hack: breathing.
For a long time, yoga lovers have recommended breathing through the nose, and scientists are now studying how it affects exercise performance. The reason behind this is a substance called nitric oxide (NO) that is produced in the nose and inhaled while breathing through it. NO might help the heart and blood vessels because it widens the blood vessels, allowing more blood flow.
While studies have linked NO with improved exercise endurance in older, inactive individuals, the boost in these studies came from supplements, not just breathing. Although comparing nose and mouth breathing suggests that breathing through the nose is a more efficient way to get oxygen into the bloodstream, it’s not clear if it can make activities like running to catch a bus easier.
But don’t give up on breathing exercises just yet. One method with a long history is respiratory muscle training, or “weight training for the breathing muscles”, according to E Fiona Bailey at the University of Arizona. Inspired by intense interval training and resistance exercises, Bailey designed experiments where participants used a device called Powerbreathe to take five sets of six breaths, making them apply more force with their diaphragm. In a recent trial, participants who did this for six weeks gained endurance and even saw lower blood pressure. Bailey explains, “We’re strengthening the diaphragm, which makes exercise feel less tiring. It may also improve breathing during exercise and extend workout time.” Devices like Powerbreathe can be purchased online, allowing anyone to try this technique at home, although figuring out the right intensity level is a challenge Bailey is currently working on.
I tried breathing exercises before, and they helped me sleep better. Sleep is essential for our health, and I wondered if better sleep could also make me more fit. So, I turned on Zoom and talked to Matthew Morrison, a researcher at the Australian Catholic University, about how sleep might affect elite athletes’ performance.
Morrison explained that many of us don’t get enough sleep, and just bringing our sleep back to a normal level might make us stronger and improve our ability to run or do other exercises. When we sleep, our bodies do important maintenance work, like fixing tissues and creating energy for our muscles. Lack of sleep can affect this process, making us less efficient in using oxygen during activities like running.
Studies show that only getting four hours of sleep a night for five nights can reduce the energy produced by our body’s tiny structures called mitochondria. Insufficient sleep also lowers testosterone levels and changes the release of growth hormone, both important for recovering from exercise.
Another problem with not getting enough sleep is that it can make us weaker. Morrison explained that it slows down the creation of new proteins in our muscles, leading to muscle atrophy. A study in the Netherlands also found a connection between chronic lack of sleep and lower muscle mass. This tells us that a good night’s sleep is crucial for any fitness routine.
There’s also a connection between our mind and our fitness. Alia Crum from Stanford University says that our beliefs about exercise can affect not only our motivation but also the benefits we get from it. In a study, she showed hotel-room attendants that their daily work activities counted as exercise, and they reported a decrease in body fat and blood pressure, even though nothing else had changed in their lives.
So, in summary, getting enough sleep is important for our fitness because it helps our bodies repair and grow. Also, our thoughts about exercise play a big role in how we benefit from it. Remember, a good night’s sleep is a key part of staying healthy and fit!
New research tells us that how we think about our strength can affect our muscles. A study at Ohio University looked at adults who had their wrists not moving for a week, making their muscles weaker. Those who imagined their muscles being strong every day had 50 per cent less muscle loss.
In a recent study by Alia Crum, she found that having a different mindset can make daily activities like housework or walking more helpful. People who used smartwatches to count their steps, even if they thought they were not active, felt happier, better about themselves, and even measured better in aerobic fitness.
Surprisingly, our gut might also play a role in helping us exercise. Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania found that specific bacteria in the gut influenced how mice ran. When these bacteria were given to the mice, they wanted to exercise more. It’s not clear if this works the same way in humans, and more research is needed to understand how the gut affects our physical performance.
This is important because many people find it hard to motivate themselves to exercise. A study in Scotland and England found that only 20 per cent of adults aged 40 to 65 did vigorous exercises like sports or going to the gym for more than 15 minutes a month.
However, this doesn’t mean these people are not active during the day. Thanks to wearable devices, we now know that any activity using more energy than sitting quietly is good for our health. While high-intensity activities have the most impact, every step we take is beneficial for our heart health. Many studies show that even light activities for at least five hours a day can significantly improve our health. So, whether it’s exercise classes or just walking, all kinds of movement count!
Adding a bit more intense movement to our daily lives can be really good for our health, especially if we do it regularly. Emmanuel Stamatakis from the University of Sydney found that even short bursts of intense movement, like walking quickly for just one minute a few times a day, can reduce the risk of heart problems. These quick bursts had similar benefits to regular, intense exercise.
Stamatakis suggests making daily activities a bit more vigorous. For example, walking up the stairs faster, carrying groceries instead of using a trolley, or putting more energy into gardening or housework can help. Having a dog or being in a colder environment, like turning the thermostat down, can also be helpful because even shivering counts as exercise.
If doing physical activity seems challenging, there might be future options to get the benefits of exercise without moving much. Scientists are working on developing pills that mimic the effects of exercise, but they’re not available yet.
Technology can also play a role in boosting fitness. Special shoes, like the Nike Vaporfly, can make running more efficient, especially for fast runners. However, for slower runners, the benefits are not as significant. For female runners, a supportive sports bra can improve performance by seven per cent.
For those less interested in traditional exercise, electronic muscle stimulation (EMS) devices can help build muscles without leaving the couch. These devices use electrical impulses to stimulate muscles and can improve strength and thickness, even if you’re not very active.
In brief, there are easy and surprising ways to improve strength and stamina, whether you exercise regularly or not. Making small changes in daily activities and exploring technology options might make a big difference. Even if goals seem ambitious, with the right mindset, improvements are possible.

Reference: New Scientist 1 July 2023

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