Is your breathing “normal?” We all know that it’s important to be aware of your heart rate, but your respiration rate, or how fast you breathe, is another one of the most important vital signs and can tell you a lot about your health.
Respiration is a special kind of natural impulse. It’s the only automatic function that can be controlled consciously. In order words, breathing is normally completely unconscious, but when willed, it can come under conscious control. You might not realize it, but your breathing has a direct impact on your blood pressure, core temperature, and heart rate. If you take a blood pressure reading taken while breathing rapidly and then another quickly after while breathing slowly and evenly, you will see that fast breathing spikes your blood pressure and heart rate.
Your breath reflects both inner and outer conditions of the human mind and body. It is linked to increases in physical exertion, deep relaxation, fear, and sleep. All of these physical states have distinct breathing patterns associated with them. It is one of the core vitals that medical practitioners document when following the progress of a patient. Your breath is not just a reaction to actions you are taking on the outside – it is a signal of core bodily states.
Understanding your normal respiratory rate and paying attention to your breath are important parts of optimizing your health and wellness.
What is Respiration and How Does It Happen?
If you’re like most people, you might assume it’s just a technical term for “breathing,” but it’s more complex than that. Inhaling and exhaling are only one step in the process of respiration.
Inhalation and exhalation are normally controlled by signals automatically sent from a part of your brain. This signal activates muscles around your lungs, telling them to contract or relax. This causes air to be sucked into the body or released. But as we all know, our we can consciously override this part of the brain, and we can get our lungs to breath faster, slower, shallower, or deeper.
Respiration encompasses the whole process of moving oxygen from the outside air to deep in your body’s cells. When you breathe in, air is drawn into your lungs. Your lungs are a series of intricate tunnels and blood vessels which take in the air, cleaning it from macro impurities such as dust. Your lung tunnels are entwined with small blood vessels, where blood cells filter in to come into direct contact with the air that your lungs have just filtered. At this point, your blood cells dump out carbon dioxide, which is a waste product of the body. Then, they absorb fresh oxygen. This process is called “gas exchange.” The blood cells then transport oxygen to cells throughout your body, where the oxygen is used as fuel to power your metabolism.
Interestingly, your lungs don’t fill completely with fresh air every time you take a breath. You only take in about 11 ounces of fresh air per breath, which is diluted with much larger store air sitting in your lungs. This ensures that the blood is getting a consistent amount of oxygen, even if you temporarily get short of breath.
Unfortunately, longer disruptions to your normal respiration rate can upset the equalizing and stabilizing effect of this supply. When your breath pattern drastically changes, either going too fast or too slow, your blood cells will start receiving an inadequate supply of oxygen. They may also cease to be able to properly unload carbon dioxide.
If this unbalance persists, your physical wellness may be adversely affected. What breathing rate should keep you in a healthy spot?
What Does Normal Respiration Look Like?
Chances are you’ve never given much thought to how quickly you breathe. You may not even know how to measure it, or how to tell if your breathing rate falls into the normal range. But measuring your breathing rate is fast and easy – here’s how.
First, sit down in a quiet space where you’ll be uninterrupted for a few moments. Place your hand gently over your chest and focus on its rising and falling motion. Focus. Set a timer for one minute.
Count the number of times your chest rises over the course of one full minute. It’s often better to have someone else do your counting for you, since observing your own breath causes many people to breathe more slowly and deeply, giving an inaccurate result.
When you’ve recorded your breath rate, how do you know if it’s ‘normal’?
What’s normal varies heavily depending on your age, health, and recent activity. At rest, infants below six months might take in as many as 30-60 breaths per minute. At age six to twelve months, this drops to 24-30 breaths per minute. From age one to five years, this doesn’t change much, with children taking between 20-30 breaths each minute.
From age six to twelve years, your breathing rate drops dramatically: down to 12-20 breaths per minute is normal for the ages of 6 to 12. After age 12, most adults continue breath within this range, although 12-18 breaths per minute is preferable. A resting respiratory rate within range is generally considered to be the an accurate measure of a person’s health. For an otherwise healthy person, respiration rates at the lower end of the range is considered best at any age.
What Factors Affect Your Respiration Rate?
If your respiration rate is significantly higher than outlined in the previous section, it’s important to consider the possible reasons why, and take steps to address your fast breathing rate. This may include seeing a medical professional.
The first thing you should examine is your recent activity levels. During and immediately after exercise, a healthy adult may take between 35-45 breaths per minute, and some endurance sports athletes can average even higher, at 60-70. If you’ve just climbed a flight of stairs or engaged in any other physical activity, wait a few minutes before trying to calculate your respiration rate.
Other factors that can alter your respiratory rate include your general physical health. Certain illnesses can increase your breathing rate. For example, research has shown that fevers can affect a person’s respiration rate. Other respiratory afflictions, such as asthma or allergies, may cause your breathing rate to be slightly off. If you’ve got a physical block in your breath pathways, such as a stuffy nose, your breath may be disturbed. None of these are necessarily indicative of serious, underlying issues.
However, a higher breathing rate can signal a strained inner state. Rapid breathing is a symptom of anxiety and stress. This is most apparent during acute episodes of anxiety disorder, which are called panic attacks. During panic attacks, the person affected will hyperventilate heavily, to the point that they become dizzy or disoriented. This is an extreme condition, but chronic milder anxiety can cause modifications to a person’s breath rate as well.
Your breathing rate is even affected by smaller changes in your state of mind. Everyday stress and excitement, as well as periods of calm and restfulness, will be reflected in your rate of respiration. Your respiration rate is a sensitive thing.
How does your respiration rate work into your overall wellness?
The Risks of a Fast Respiration Rate
Breathing too quickly can be indicative of an underlying problem. This might be an illness, stress, or perhaps just poor fitness if you’re huffing and puffing up the stairs. However, having a faster breathing rate can negatively affect your wellness independently. As we discussed earlier, your breathing impacts your other main vital signs. Your normal pulse rate will be higher than necessary, and it can cause hypertension, or high blood pressure. These circulatory issues can lead to heart disease or heart attacks if they go unchecked for long periods of time.
Breathing too quickly doesn’t permit your body time to send oxygen to your blood cells properly. In the extreme, this can cause discomfort, including dizziness, muscle spasms, and tingling in your arms and legs. You may even feel faint or experience chest pain. It may also shift your normal body temperature, which comes with its own risks for other medical conditions.
Even if you only have a mild case of hyperventilation, a fast respiration rate can cause difficulty concentrating or thinking. Over time the lack of oxygen can leave you feeling exhausted and can worsen your feelings of stress – which can, in turn, cause health complications down the line.
How To Achieve a Healthy and Normal Respiration Rate
As with any potentially serious medical issue, you should check with a healthcare provider before moving forward with any major life changes. If you find that you’re habitually breathing too quickly, there are things you can do to slow your respiration rate down to a normal level. Breathing exercises, meditation, yoga, and a variety of other practices can train you to breathe more deeply and slowly.
Using Spire can help you become more aware of your breath throughout the day. There may be times when anxiety is mounting and your breath is increasing in speed. Because you are busy or distracted, you may not be able to notice these changes. If you aren’t able to notice your increased breath rate, you won’t be able to take steps to calm yourself down or do breathing exercises to help settle back into a healthy rhythm. Spire accurately tracks your breath, giving you real-time feedback on your breathing, helping you understand when it’s time to take a pause to take care of your breath.
Respiration rate is one of the most basic functions of the human body, but it is far more complex and meaningful that most of us realize. With a little practice and a mindful approach, it’s possible to bring your breathing to a healthy rate and live a more relaxed, calmer, healthier life.
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