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.”
If you think about what happens when we’re running from the lion, it may not surprise you that recent research suggests that large percentages, not everybody, large percentages of people with some of our most chronic health problems, also tend to have low heart rate variability, which means they’re in sympathetic overdrive.
In fact, low heart rate variability has been associated with all cause and cardiac mortality. Things like acid reflux, erectile dysfunction, restless leg syndrome, low back pain, anxiety, depression. This is because when we’re in that sympathetic overdrive, our body is in that state, a state of panic.
The lion is just a metaphor. That lion is the culmination of your angry boss, your finances, trying to get the kids to school without spilling my coffee again, right? All these things add up. And we end up breathing very shallow, and we get very poor at exhalation, and our hormones are all out of whack.
When we take a proper breath, our diaphragm is going to descend, and it’s going to pull oxygen into our lungs. When we’re in sympathetic dominance, we’re using prime movers, big muscles to breathe. When we take a proper breath, that diaphragm is actually going to push on our internal organs. I’ve read that the kidneys will actually move 2-3 centimeters with a proper breath. And if you think about that – the vitality of the internal body moving fluids around, keeping them healthy – it all comes back to breathing.
When we take a proper breath, we’re going to get 360 degree expansion of our torso. It’s not just a belly breath, it’s definitely not a chest breath, we’re going to get expansion everywhere. We’re going to get better at detoxifying our own body and delivering more nutrition to our cells that we’re giving it in our diet.
I’m going to give you a couple of exercises so you can take this home and learn how to take control and get yourself out of sympathetic dominance and into a state of believing in yourself again. Research into people with low back pain, just four or five weeks of exercises similar to the ones I’m going to show you, showed an increase in heart rate variability, and alongside that, it showed an increase in self-efficacy.
These low back-pain patients, even with no improvement in pain, felt less limited by their pain. In a world of “I’m too sick. I’m too fat. I’m too old,” that’s the key. If we see HRV as our resilience, then chronic stress, sympathetic overdrive, busy schedules, and always being on the go is literally robbing us of our vitality. It’s robbing us of our ability to live an emotionally rich life, to chase our dreams, to chase wealth, chase health.
The fast track to getting yourself out of sympathetic overdrive is to breathe with your nose. So, right now, I want everybody to just take a big breath in your nose. (Inhales). Hold it for a second, and exhale three times longer than it took you to inhale. Go ahead.
The first exercise – go ahead, exhale, sorry. So now, we’re going to upgrade this. That’s the fast track. The better decision: every morning when you wake up, before a meeting, we’re going to block one side of your nose, and I want you to take 10 breaths, then do the other side. As you get better, you’ll inhale one side, exhale the other. This is an amazing quick fix to calm you down before an important meeting.
I’ve seen incredible results in people with digestive problems using this before meals. Because traditionally, they run, they’re stressed out and busy, and I’m going to shove this in my face. When you calm down before a meal, you get that blood. You don’t want the blood, you can’t be running from a lion when you’re going to eat, you want that blood in your digestive system to give you some help. So that’s a great exercise.
The next few I have used with everybody, from the general population, a 73-year-old man with low back pain, all the way to professional athletes, and here they are.
We all went through very similar developmental milestones at three months, six months, nine months, 12 months. That is when your body learned how to use breath to create a positive internal environment. And we had no preoccupations at this age, no stress.
Your body remembers these positions. When you get into these positions – this is what you should do when you go home – get into these positions and breathe. Don’t count reps – that’s stressful. Breathe – three, four, five minutes in each of these positions. And remember, when I’m in this position, I should feel expansion 360 degrees. My entire torso should expand.
Same thing here, and same thing here. This type of exercise has actually replaced the majority of our stretching with professional athletes. Because most tightness – “Oh, I’ve got this hamstring’s tight” – most tightness is tight because the brain is trying to stabilize an unstable torso.
When we learn to use air to fill our torso effectively, our hamstrings magically let go. Our shoulder pain goes away because we’re using the right muscles.
Do me a favor right now, let’s just straighten your arms, put them next to you. Push into your chair just a little bit, not too hard because we don’t want to get you guys all jacked up. Push into the chair just a little bit and take a big breath in your nose, and exhale – three seconds for the exhale, one second for the inhale. (Inhales) (Exhales). And you should feel a bit different because if you’re using any muscles except your diaphragm, we’re pre-occupying, we’re getting those doing something different instead.
Does anyone feel like this is a little bit harder to breathe in? Because you don’t have as many options to get air in in this position, you can only use one or two things. So take a few breaths.
The last exercise is a test. I want you guys to lie on your back. You can prop your feet up if you want to, but it’s better if you don’t, and try to blow up a balloon from this position.
When we’re running from a lion, our body prioritizes inhalation far more than exhalation. Exhalation is when we’re getting rid of toxins. Inhalation is when I’m giving my body the oxygen it needs to not die. So we get weak in our expiratory muscles.
So when you go home – a lot of our athletes will do this ten or 15 times before a workout to get the breath where it needs to be, get the stability where it needs to be, and to activate the right system. It’s a great exercise.
Together, these three exercises are going to give your body exactly what it needs. You’re going to be more efficient at delivering nutrition to your cells; you’re going to be more efficient at expelling toxins; you’re going to increase your heart rate variability.
I remember a couple of years ago, I was walking with my niece, and she’s three years old. It had just rained, and there was this puddle that was like ten feet long. And without even thinking, she just tried to leap it. She tried to do the impossible. And it blew my mind. She landed about a foot into it, and it was the best day of her life. She saw no negative outcome from trying to jump that puddle.
But we used to be like that too. Then we got stressed out; we got pre-occupied: “I’m not going to try to jump that. I’m too fat. I’m too sick. I’m too old to try to jump that puddle.” “I can’t start a business because of what happened last time.” “I’m not going to live my life this way because of what they think, or what they think.”
Well, what if, instead of eating fast food 23,000 time a day, we took ourselves to the spa? What if 23,000 times a day we invested in our vitality?
What if 23,000 times a day we took ourselves back to a state of calm where we could truly believe in ourselves, and be the three-year-old trying to jump the impossible puddle?
Everybody wants to say you have to go on this diet, you have to start drinking this, you have to get sweaty and sore, you have to do this workout, when in fact, the best possible decision you can make is to simply do something better that you’re already doing 23,000 times a day. Breathe.