Reviewed by: HU Medical Review Board | Last reviewed: June 2023 | Last updated: October 2023
Breathing exercises are a popular way some people manage their asthma along with prescription drugs and other treatments. Certain exercises may help improve breathing problems that worsen asthma symptoms. Common breathing techniques focus on breathing with your diaphragm and through your nose.
Breathing exercises can improve quality of life and lung function. But there is not yet much evidence. These exercises should be used with asthma medicines, not instead of them. Talk to your doctor or a respiratory therapist. They can suggest specific techniques, or ways of breathing, to try.
How can breathing exercises help asthma symptoms?
People with asthma often have breathing pattern problems. For example, overbreathing, or hyperventilation is when breathing happens at a faster than normal rate. For those with asthma, hyperventilation happens because airway narrowing can leave your body hungry for air. Your body responds by breathing faster and trying to take bigger breaths. You may also breathe through your mouth instead of your nose.1
Breathing too fast can cause problems, such as:2,3
- Low levels of carbon dioxide in your blood, which can cause dizziness
- Worse airway narrowing (bronchoconstriction)
- Cooler and dryer airways, which can result in coughing and wheezing
Breathing exercises may help. There are 3 types of breathing exercises for people with asthma:3
- Breath retraining: exercises that fix breathing patterns
- Respiratory muscle training: exercises that increase the strength of breathing muscles
- Musculoskeletal training: exercises that increase the flexibility of the rib cage
What types of breathing exercises help asthma symptoms?
There are several types of breathing exercises that may help with asthma symptoms.
Diaphragmatic “belly” breathing
The diaphragm is located below your lungs and is the main muscle used for breathing. In asthma, air has a harder time escaping the lungs when you exhale. This results in “trapping” air in the lungs, pushing the diaphragm down. Diaphragmatic or belly breathing techniques help to:
- Strengthen your diaphragm
- Ease the effort needed to breathe by slowing down breathing
- Decrease air trapped in the lungs and improve exhaling
Pursed lip breathing
Pursed lip breathing can help slow down breathing. This technique keeps the airways more open to allow better exhalation of air from the lungs. This helps remove air trapped in the lungs and relieves shortness of breath.4
To do this technique, take a normal breath in. Then, exhale slowly through tightly puckered lips. Your lips should look like you are whistling or blowing a bubble when you are exhaling. Exhaling like this should take at least twice as long as it normally does.4,5
The Papworth method combines breathing and relaxation techniques. The goal is to slow breathing and encourage gentler breathing. Like belly breathing, this method focuses on breathing slowly through your nose and using your diaphragm. The Papworth method also uses relaxation exercises to help reduce anxiety.5
The Buteyko method is based on the idea that most people breathe too deeply. The technique focuses on breathing slowly and through your nose. This helps keep the air you are breathing warm and moist. It also claims to help balance oxygen and carbon dioxide in your body.2,5
Yoga combines steady breathing with movement, stretches, and balance. Yoga focuses on slow and controlled breathing using the diaphragm muscle. This can promote relaxation, and reduce anxiety and stress, which can be triggers for asthma.5
What are the benefits of breathing exercises?
Studies of breathing techniques are usually small. So there is not yet enough evidence to know how to use breathing techniques to help asthma. However, some research has shown benefits of different breathing exercises, including:3,6,7
- Better lung function
- Fewer asthma symptoms
- Better quality of life
- Fewer school absences for children
- Less use of asthma medicines
What are the risks of breathing exercises?
Breathing exercises are usually safe. However, they are not a replacement for asthma medicines. You should also never use breathing exercises to replace or delay medical care during an asthma attack. Breathing exercises may help you stay calm during an asthma attack. But they will not quickly improve your lung function.3