Following is the full transcript of lifestyle and fitness expert Joe DiStefano’s TEDx Talk: BREATHE. at TEDxLugano conference. This event occurred on April 16, 2016.
Listen to the MP3 audio while reading the transcript: BREATHE. Joe DiStefano at TEDxLugano
Joe DiStefano – Lifestyle and fitness expert
I would love everybody here to simply stop your breath for the next few seconds. Don’t take a big gulp in, just exhale what you have, and let’s hold it.
Keep going. Keep going.
All right, let’s let it out. How did that feel? Did you feel like you could have done it much longer?
Well the truth is, if we had to hold our breath for another two-and-a-half to three minutes, most of us, unfortunately, would be dead.
On average, the human body can go about 3 weeks without food, 3 days without water, but only 3 minutes without air.
Now, what surprises me, and what might surprise you too, is that when we go to try to improve our health, as most of us are doing perpetually on some level, we typically go first to the thing that we can go the longest without: food.
Maybe soon after, we start pushing aside some of the sugary drinks and beer, and start carrying around a big, blue water bottle, that we drink six times a day. But we never think to start with something we can’t even go even one minute without comfortably, something that we do 23,000 times a day. Breathing.
Now, changing your diet is a good thing. Hydrating is a good idea too. I’m not knocking those things. In fact, I’ve spent the last 15 years coaching clients and athletes how to improve them.
But what thousands of people have taught me is that if you’re breathing sub-optimally, dysfunctionally, or flat-out wrong, it’s almost impossible for your body to reap all the benefits from even the best diet, the best hydration or exercise program.
And I have some bad news: we’re almost all guilty. I’d go as far as to say that dysfunctional breathing is the respiratory equivalent of eating fast food, not once or twice, 23,000 times a day. Fixing this problem starts by taking a new look at the heart.
Each beat of your heart is the result of the interplay of the two branches of the autonomic nervous system. The sympathetic, what we call the fight-or-flight response, and the parasympathetic, which we call the rest-and-digest.
So the new way of looking at health by looking at heart rate, doesn’t look so much at the number of beats per minute, as the space between them, which is called heart rate variability. In a healthy person with a robust nervous system, let’s say their heart is beating 60 times a minute – you might assume it’s beating once a second, which it is, but that’s only the average.
You see, in reality, it would be something like this: 0.96 seconds, 1.02 seconds, 0.99 seconds, 1.04 seconds, and so on. This is because each beat of your heart is a result of this arm wrestling match between these two branches of the autonomic nervous system.
The sympathetic is very vigilant. It always wants to accelerate your heart rate; it’s always looking for emergencies. It’s looking to keep you safe.
The parasympathetic is just the opposite, it wants to calm you down and slow your pulse. Because it wants to use all the energy it can to optimize your immune system, to detoxify, to digest your food, and of course, maintain a very strong interest in sex.
Without getting into too many details, it’s because of this interplay and this heart rate variability that we can begin to see where our heartbeats are coming from. Are they more stressful beats? Or are they more relaxed beats?
In an ideal world, most of our heartbeats would be relaxed, and that would mean the variability between them would fluctuate a lot. Because both these nervous systems are always on.
The sympathetic always wants to accelerate, the parasympathetic wants to calm you down. In an ideal state, if we’re relaxed, our sympathetic is always waiting in the background. It’s still vigilant, but it’s not dominating.
The unfortunate truth is that today, for most of us chasing wealth, health, happiness, trying to get the kids to school, sitting in traffic, most of our heartbeats are being dictated by some level of that sympathetic nervous system. And it’s causing us some problems.
Here’s why: imagine you’re in the woods. You’re running through a trail, and you turn a corner, and all of the sudden there’s a lion staring right back at you. In less than a second, that sympathetic nervous system is going to go soaring. You’re going to gulp a huge amount of oxygen into your body. Your blood pressure and heart rate are going to be jacked, they’re going to be through the roof.
You’re going to recruit muscles in your shoulders and your chest to start getting air in even faster. Your lunch is not being digested anymore, your digestion is going to stop. And that blood’s going to go right into the legs to help you run away. Fear is going to dominate your emotions, and you’re going to make impulsive, thoughtless decisions. “Should I grab that tree branch and try to swing out of the way, or what?”
All this happens because your body knows in five minutes, you’re either going to be safe or dead. And if you’re safe, well, we’ll get back to your immune system, we’ll get back to lunch. Right now, I’ve got to escape from this lion.
So what happens when we’re in sympathetic overdrive, when the sympathetic nervous system is decreasing our heart rate variability and governing our heart rate is that we get stuck running from the lion.
Imagine you’ve been running from the lion for three minutes, big deal. But what about three hours? Or three days? Three weeks? Three months? Three years? Thirty years?
Eventually, sure, your immune system is going to go out of whack. You might get some back pain. At some point, you’re going to start to doubt whether you can continue running from this thing. You’re going to start to feel defeated.
In the first three minutes, if there was a mile of cactus – I don’t know where we are, but if there was a mile of cactus, you would sprint right through it, and because of the adrenaline, you wouldn’t feel a thing.
But after three months of running from the lion, or three hours? You’re going to feel those cactus before you even jump in the patch. You’re going to doubt whether it’s a good idea: “Maybe I should just wait for him to come catch me because I don’t want to get involved with that again.”