07/08/2011 05:26 pm ET | Updated Sep 07, 2011

Breathing: The Secret to Better Test-Taking (And Other Benefits)

Take this simple test: Right now, on a scale of one to 10, rate your own energy level. Then rate your stress level. We will get back to this. Now take a peek at a clock with a second hand and count how many in-and-out breaths you take in one minute. Six breaths in one minute is ideal. Seventeen breaths is three breaths away from hyperventilation.

When you are breathing more than 15 breaths per minute -- which is typical when you are stressed or rushed -- your brain is getting 40 percent less oxygen than it needs for everyday bodily functions. This affects your brain's performance in things like test-taking and driving.

This oxygen deprivation is why kids who have studied for tests, and who know all of the answers, do poorly when they get into the classroom -- thanks to no oxygen to the brain.

Tell your kids to take six 6-count breaths before they start their test. This should get them into a better college. You're welcome.

Also, we all know some people (moi) who cannot sit still as well as others. This is due to an unhealthy cerebral spinal fluid rhythm, caused by -- you guessed it -- poor (or shallow) breathing. Did you know there is a Pursed Lipped Breathing (PLB) technique? You put the tip of your tongue on the roof of your mouth, and it stabilizes your core! If your neck hurts when you do abdominal flexion (sit-ups), try this technique. Your core will engage and take over for the muscles you are straining in your neck. Who knew? Your pop surprise bonus is that exercise helps you breathe better. It increases oxygen, and therefore blood flow to the brain, so you can think more clearly. Many runners and cyclists tell me that they do their best thinking -- brainstorming, if you will -- during their workouts. I used to think that my showers post-exercise felt better because I was sweatier -- a blonde idea, I know, but now I think it feels better because my body is more revitalized from the vigorous breathing that exercise induces.

The way we can age stronger is by reducing our stress levels. We do this by breathing more slowly and deeper into the belly. One minute of deep abdominal breathing stops the production of adrenaline by the adrenals, two pea-shaped glands that sit on top of the kidneys. Twelve minutes of deep belly breathing will cause your body to start releasing those "feel-good" hormones, like endorphins and serotonin, two of the poster children of the hormonal world.

Endorphins give you a buzz, and serotonin regulates mood, emotion, sleep and appetite. When we are stressed, the hypocampus, a gland in the brain, initiates a stress response that triggers a tremendous deterioration of the body. Every bodily function works harder to do its job. Not only does this drain your energy and make you feel more tired -- just like someone digging a ditch with a shovel gets more tired than someone digging with a backhoe -- but it also produces free radicals. It also sends an alarm signal to the adrenal glands that react by releasing adrenaline.
Adrenaline races through our system, triggering a release of cortisol, which dips your blood sugar level, thereby triggering an, "I need more energy!" response. This makes you hungry for some Wheat Thins or two bowls of Lucky Charms, which makes you gain weight, so your jeans don't fit. This pisses you off, which makes you snarky with your husband, which ruins your marriage, causes divorce and financial ruin, brings contempt from your kids and, in the trickle-down theory, ruins your entire life.

So I ask you. Breathe.


Subscribe to the Lifestyle email.
We’re basically your best friend… with better taste.