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updated: 6/7/2011 2:44 PM

Why how you breathe is vital

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Q. Why do I hear some people making a big deal about how you breathe during exercise like walking or biking? Does it really make a difference?

A. Yes, how you are breathing during aerobic exercise can affect your heart rate and thus your performance and endurance.

Many adults have developed a shallow breathing pattern. This limits how much oxygen you can take in, cutting short your ability to continue when you could otherwise go longer or faster. Erratic breathing when exercising can lead you to hyperventilate or get dizzy.

Instead, as you walk, try to inhale for two steps, then hold the air in for two steps, and then exhale for two steps. Alternatively, some experts advise inhaling a full three steps to get oxygen deep into all your muscles. Either way, focus on full, strong inhales and full, complete exhales.

This attention to breathing can seem awkward at first, but you will notice that your heart won't start pounding as easily because you are able to get more oxygen into your body and push out the carbon dioxide waste.

You may also find that with a focus on breathing, your walk turns into a more meditative, calming activity as a side benefit. Eventually this will seem less awkward and will become second nature. The most important thing is simply to keep breathing.

People often assume that they are automatically breathing when they are actually holding their breath. Take a moment to focus on your breathing during your next walk or during strenuous activities such as climbing the stairs. You may be surprised to find that you are actually holding your breath. And you may be just as surprised to see how much more you can do when you are breathing in a way that gets your body the oxygen it needs.

Q. If I switch to sugar-free cookies and candy, will it help me lose weight?

A. Switching the type of cookies and candies you get will probably lead to little if any weight loss. These products almost always use at least partly a sweetener known as a sugar alcohol, such as maltitol. These sugar alcohols provide about half the calories of sugar; still a significant amount in sweets.

Besides, most sugar-free sweets contain significant calories from fat and refined grains. For example, a 1.5 ounce bar of Godiva dark chocolate provides 230 calories in its regular form, and 210 calories in its sugar-free version.

Yes, small amounts of calorie savings throughout the day do add up to produce weight loss, but the question you need to answer is how often you have room for treats with 200 or more calories; if it's not often, then the difference in calories will not amount to much.

Here's another example: one sugar-free Oreo cookie is 50 calories; one regular Oreo is 60 calories. Sugar-free Oreo label lists 2 cookies per serving (100 calories); Regular Oreos list a 3-cookie serving with 160 calories. The bottom line is that you cut more calories by eating fewer cookies than you do by choosing sugar-free cookies.

You don't need to cut out all sweets in order to lose weight, so focus on choosing sweets less often and give up on the idea of searching for something you can eat by the box without paying a penalty. When you do have sweets, savor a small portion: that's the true calorie-saving secret.

• Provided by the American Institute for Cancer Research. Learn more about the group and its New American Plate program at aicr.org.

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