What if you could practice a simple form of exercise that would benefit your heart... strengthen your lungs... help modulate stress... and, if you are an athlete and interested in such things, take your performance to a higher level... and you could get all these benefits without even getting out of your chair? And without breaking a sweat, I might add. How great would that be? Its not too good to be true, and though you can buy inexpensive devices to help you do this, you dont need any fancy equipment for what Im about to explain. Take a Deep Breath ... A recent study at Indiana University demonstrated that doing simple breathing exercises can bring big health benefits for many types of people, including athletes, seniors and people who are ill with respiratory diseases, among others. The study was small, but results were impressive. The test subjects were 16 male bicyclists -- not professionals, but avid amateurs. Twice a day, half the cyclists took 30 breaths through a device known as an inspiratory muscle trainer (IMT) that made them work harder to bring air into their lungs. Another eight cyclists used the same type of device but set to a low level that required only a slight additional effort to breathe. Researchers discovered that after six weeks of these daily exercises, the cyclists who worked hard to breathe now required about 1% less oxygen during low-intensity exercise and 3% to 4% less oxygen during high-intensity exercise -- which indicated that their bodies were functioning more efficiently. The control group experienced virtually no change in their oxygen requirements during exercise. So how important are these results? And who exactly can benefit from breathing exercises? To find the answers, I contacted Richard Firshein, DO, medical director of the Firshein Center for Comprehensive Medicine in New York City , where patients (including those with asthma) are taught better breathing techniques through a program he developed called "Breath of Life." Dr. Firshein, a former asthma sufferer himself, is author of Reversing Asthma and Your Asthma-Free Child. Who Needs Breath Training? Dr. Firshein explained that when we draw air into our lungs, we use not only the powerful muscles at the bottom of the rib cage (the diaphragm), but also the intercostal muscles that run between the ribs. Though we use these muscles with every breath, they only rarely get additional exercise (like the kind that arm muscles get when we lift weights) to strengthen them further. But thats a shame, he said, because exercising our breathing muscles more vigorously helps in two ways. First, stronger muscles are able to draw more air into the lungs, which then have more oxygen to utilize... and second, exercising enables these muscles to use oxygen more efficiently, delivering more oxygen to the rest of the body. Thats especially important to: Athletes, whose performance is boosted by every bit of additional energy. People with asthma and other respiratory ailments. Older people, especially those over 50. Like other muscles, our breathing muscles atrophy with age so that theyre unable to draw as much air into the lungs -- unless theyre strengthened by exercise. Do-It-Yourself Breath Training I asked Dr. Firshein whether this type of exercise can be done at home, and he said it absolutely can. If you want to follow the same plan as in the study, youll need to purchase an IMT, which is an inexpensive plastic device used by athletes and people with asthma and other respiratory conditions to strengthen their breathing muscles. Dr. Firshein told me that virtually everyone can benefit from using one. Though IMTs can cost up to $225, most people dont need complex features and options and will do fine with the less expensive models, said Dr. Firshein. He likes one made by Expand-A-Lung ($29.95) and said that PowerLung is another good brand. Both are available online. To use an IMT: Following the instructions on your device, Dr. Firshein said to start with the low resistance setting. Insert it in your mouth and breathe through it for two to five minutes, twice a day. Over a month or two, gradually increase the resistance level, working up to a total of 15 or 20 minutes per session. Note: Discuss this with your doctor first if you have a breathing condition such as asthma or COPD. The No-Tech Breathing Plan You also can strengthen your breathing muscles without equipment. Here are two exercises to try: Breathing exercise #1: Twice a day, spend about five minutes breathing in slowly through your nose, letting your belly expand as far as is comfortable. Then, while exhaling, consciously push the air from your belly, up through your lungs and out through your mouth. Now, after youve exhaled (but not after youve inhaled), hold your breath for a few seconds -- this increases the carbon dioxide level in your body. This is thought to be helpful in relaxing the muscles around the lungs to reduce strain and muscle spasm, both of which contribute to the pressure people with asthma often feel during exercise and even at rest. For the same reason, count slowly to five as you breathe in and to seven as you breathe out. Breathing exercise #2: Now, to exercise the upper breathing muscles, again breathe slowly in and out -- but this time through your mouth, expanding and contracting your chest instead of your stomach. Purse your lips to make it slightly more difficult for the air to get in and out. And again, count to about five as you breathe in and to seven as you breathe out, and hold your breath for a few seconds after you exhale. If you slowly increase the resistance by adjusting how tightly you purse your lips when you exhale, you will strengthen the muscles important to respiration and mimic the benefits of using an IMT. Build to doing both of these exercises for a total of 15 to 20 minutes per day, taking about a month to get there. Dr. Firshein said its not necessary to consult your doctor before starting breathing exercises unless you have asthma or another medical condition that affects your breathing or stamina. Regardless of which exercise method you choose, he said that the result will be an overall increase in strength and endurance. Thats an advantage not just in sports but in everyday life. Source(s): Richard Firshein, DO, medical director of the Firshein Center for Comprehensive Medicine in New York City , professor of family medicine, New York College of Osteopathic Medicine, New York City. He is author of Reversing Asthma: Breathe Easier with This Revolutionary New Program (Hachette).