It’s been a strange irony that I, lying in my bed, should stumble upon a book that deals so intimately with the very thing that had brought me low. Covid had robbed me of my strength and left me short of breath, and yet it was in the midst of this struggle that I found distraction and, yes, a tune up.
For as I laid there, scrolling through the internet, I chanced upon a review of Patrick McKeown’s «The Oxygen Advantage». A book, it would seem, that promises to unlock the secrets of the breath and provide a path to better health and fitness.
«It’s likely there will be uses for breathing techniques in a variety of medical settings, but it’s not a magic bullet.» (Mike Thomas)
At first, I scoffed at the notion. Surely, I thought, there can be no easy answers to a problem as complex as breathing. And yet, as I read on, I found myself intrigued. And so I took the opportunity, since I had plenty of time anyway, and got the audiobook.
McKeown’s approach is not a quick fix or a fad, it’s not one of magic or mystery. He draws upon years of research and practical experience to offer a system that can help us all breathe better and achieve more in our lives. His method involves a combination of breathing exercises and training techniques to enhance the body’s oxygen utilization. The book is filled with anecdotes of athletes who have experienced improvements in their performance, including endurance, speed, and recovery time.
As someone who has always relied on medication to manage my asthma during exercise, McKeown’s prospect of a drug-free approach was fascinating. But, as a skeptic, I was cautious about it from the start. McKeown’s promises seemed too good to be true, and some of his techniques appeared almost too simple to be effective. Despite my doubts, I found myself drawn in by McKeown’s persuasive arguments and his easy-to-follow instructions. His style is clear and concise, making the book accessible to both athletes and laypeople alike.
Overblown claims are frustrating for scientists
I often struggled to keep up with my non-asthmatic peers on the track or the field, and so the idea of being able to train without the aid of medication is nothing short of liberating, as this disease has more than once been limiting my potential and robbing me of the joy of exercise. In «The Oxygen Advantage,» McKeown offers a way out of this vicious cycle. By improving our breathing patterns and training our bodies to utilize oxygen more efficiently, he gives us the tools to unlock our full athletic potential.
«The problem is that in most human studies any effects of slow, deep breathing seem to be isolated to the lab conditions in which they are measured.» (Don Noble)
While «The Oxygen Advantage» offers a promising new approach, it is important to acknowledge that not all experts are convinced of its benefits. Some argue that breathing techniques, especially when promoted as a cure-all for various health issues, may be nothing more than a passing trend. In a 2020 article for The Guardian, journalist Emine Saner notes that there is limited scientific evidence to support many of the claims made by proponents of breathing exercises. Additionally, some experts caution that certain techniques, such as hyperventilation, may actually be harmful if not practiced properly.
However, this is not to say that all breathing exercises should be dismissed outright. As Saner writes: «Many people undoubtedly benefit from breathing exercises. However, overblown claims about these powers are frustrating for scientists who believe they do have potential for more widespread use, but that this should be supported by good-quality research and trials.»
At this point it is worth mentioning that McKeown’s approach is partly based on the breathing exercises promoted by Dr. Konstantin Pavlovich Buteyko, a Soviet physician and professor. Buteyko was a strong advocate of nasal breathing and believed that many diseases, including cancer and AIDS, could be cured by practicing proper breathing techniques. Some of Buteyko’s claims have been widely criticized and are considered by many in scientific circles to be pseudoscientific and too simplistic.
A useful starting point
Nonetheless in recent years, several studies have been conducted to investigate the effectiveness of the Buteyko breathing technique. While one study published in the Journal Respiratory Medicine found that the Buteyko technique appears to have a positive impact on asthma control, and that patients using that technique were able to significantly reduce their daily doses of inhaled corticosteroid, other studies have found no evidence for its effectiveness.
«Nasal breathing provides significant advantages over mouth breathing, particularly for athletes who want to improve performance as well as recover more efficiently» (Michael Flanell)
But there’s more when it comes to breath training in general. One study, published in April 2022, found that breath work helped recovering Covid-19 patients return to healthy respiratory rates. And another study, published in November 2022, found that breathing exercises — among other mindfulness practices — were as effective as drugs to treat anxiety disorders.
Moreover, studies indicate that a focus on breathing can reduce stress by increasing parasympathetic nervous system activity. And one of Buteyko’s principles, nasal breathing, is finding more and more advocates in science and medicine. A review paper by Michael Flanell, Professor for Healthcare Management at St. Joseph’s College in Patchogue, New York, concludes that «nasal breathing provides significant advantages over mouth breathing, particularly for athletes who want to improve performance as well as recover more efficiently.»
Despite the lack of concrete scientific evidence supporting McKeown’s approaches and the controversy surrounding some of the breathing techniques, I find myself intrigued by the potential benefits of his method. The idea of improving my overall well-being and potentially even enhancing my athletic performance through simple breathing exercises is certainly appealing.
While I approach McKeown’s method with caution and do not plan to use it as a sole means of treating any medical conditions I may have, I am excited to experiment with his techniques and see if they can truly make a difference in my life. While McKeown’s method may not work for everyone, his book provides a useful starting point for those looking to explore alternative methods for managing breathing difficulties and improving athletic performance. Ultimately, I believe that any method that promotes a healthier lifestyle is worth exploring, provided that it is undertaken in a safe and responsible way. So here I am, welcoming the force of mindfulness into my live, one breath at a time.