Is Your Breathing Actually Affecting Your Weight?

When we feel stressed out, we might be told, "Just breathe." It's a good practice, but does breathing heavily help us lose weight? It's a little more complex than that.

According to the Cleveland Clinic, when we consume more calories than we burn, our body stores the excess energy as fat. If we begin a weight loss program consisting of a healthy diet and exercise, we experience a slight calorie deficit. This is when the body turns to its stored fat for energy. Fat leaves the body through sweating, urination, and breath.

A 2014 study in the British Medical Journal suggested that there's much more to this idea. Using a molecular formula, the researchers determined that the lungs are the main organ for shuttling fat out of the body. When we exercise rather than rest, we're ramping up the metabolic system and breathing out the carbon (as carbon dioxide) stored in fat cells. In other words, it's all about the exhale.

How we're breathing, however, can also signal a big inhibitor of weight loss: stress. It's one thing if we're breathing rapidly during a hard run. If our breath is short and shallow while not exercising, we might be under stress (via Better Health Channel).

How stress affects our breathing and weight loss

When a stressful event occurs in our life, our nervous system sends "fight or flight" signals so we can respond. For example, if we're walking down the street and suddenly notice an angry dog chasing us, our natural response is to flee as quickly as possible. Our heart rate increases, our breathing quickens, and blood rushes to our limbs to help us out of trouble (via Healthline). In this way, stress can protect us.

Problems occur when we have several stressful events and we don't allow the stress levels to settle. Over time, elevated stress levels can significantly damage your body. They can affect your heart, digestion, immune system, and reproductive organs (via Healthline).

However, there's a reason why stress can affect our weight loss efforts: cortisol. According to Medline Plus, cortisol is a hormone that kicks in when our body or mind is under stress. It helps us maintain inner balance by fighting infection, maintaining blood pressure, and regulating our metabolism — cortisol isn't necessarily bad for us.

When we're continually under stress, excess levels of cortisol can cause problems. According to Orlando Health, cortisol ramps up our appetite and causes us to crave foods high in sugar, salt, and fat. We also don't produce as much testosterone, which means less muscle and a slower metabolism.

Rather than finding ways to reduce cortisol, it's best to focus on reducing levels of stress so the body can find equilibrium on its own.

Using breath to reduce stress

To counteract stress and anxiety, breathing exercises can help. Breathing deep and focusing on the exhale signals the body to calm down (per CBC). Although there are different breath practices to relax you, the simplest and safest practice is deep, diaphragmatic breathing (via Cleveland Clinic).

You can practice this anywhere, but it's best to lie on your back so your spine is straight. Place one hand on the space just below your rib cage, and breathe in through your nose. Feel the belly rise on the inhale and fall on the exhale. Be sure to exhale all the air out so that your abdominal muscles contract slightly (via Harvard Medical School).

A 2017 study in Frontiers in Psychology had participants practice diaphragmatic breathing for 15 minutes for 20 sessions over eight weeks. The researchers found that this breath practice reduced negative feelings and temporarily improved attention versus the control group. Over time, those who practiced diaphragmatic breathing also had significantly lower levels of cortisol.

Diaphragmatic breathing won't cause weight loss, but the stress-reducing benefits can prevent you from reaching for foods that sabotage your weight-loss plan. Once you're burning stored fat, the emphasis on the exhale helps shuttle the fat out of the body.