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Willamette Student Researcher Thumbs Nose at Breathe Right Strips

Gregory BoggsYou see them all the time, athletes and weekend warriors alike sporting those adhesive strips on their noses. Professional athletes like football great Jerry Rice do television commercials for Breathe Right Nasal strips, claiming the funny looking pieces of adhesive worn across the bridge of the nose help them breathe easier, run faster and play better. Are the claims true? Do those little adhesive nasal strips really improve athletic performance? Maybe not, says Gregory Boggs, a student researcher at Willamette.

"The makers of Breath Right Nasal strip claim that you can breathe easier with their product," says Boggs. "But how do you define breathing easier? I measured one of the best physiological indicators of exercise performance and found the strips didn't improve performance."

Boggs, a senior majoring in exercise science, won a $2,500 Carson Grant, a prestigious competitive award given to students who want to research an original idea or an area of research beyond what they can study in class. He had eight physically fit female athletes work out on exercise bicycles at increasing levels of resistance until they reached exhaustion and had to stop. The group performed twice, once using the Breathe Rightäasal strips and once without strips. Blood samples were taken from the subjects throughout the test and then three minutes into recovery after exercise.

Unlike other researchers who have measured factors like resistance to airflow in the nostrils and the amount of inhalation/expiration (ventilation) occurring in the nose, Boggs chose to measure blood levels of lactate, a byproduct of metabolism. As exercise increases, the body produces more and more lactate until the body is unable to remove the lactate from the muscles (called the lactate threshold). At this point, the body is performing without much oxygen (anaerobically). The excess lactate causes the muscles to be unable to work properly.

Lactate threshold is one of the physiological measures of athletic performance. Trained athletes, who are able to take in and use oxygen efficiently, are able to physically work harder and longer before reaching the lactate threshold than untrained individuals. "Lactate threshold is an important measure of aerobic performance," explains Boggs. "It's a good measure of whether you're using oxygen for energy or whether you're working anaerobically or without oxygen. For best performance, we want to be working with oxygen."

If a product like Breathe Right can make more oxygen available, wearing the nasal strip would delay the onset of the lactate threshold and therefore enable the wearer to work harder and longer. A person working at the same intensity should have less lactate in their blood compared with someone not wearing the strip. However, Boggs found no significant differences in the lactate threshold levels of the athletes when they wore the strips or when they didn't. His is not the first to conclude the little nasal strips don't work.

"A lot of research agrees with my conclusion although none of the other studies use lactate levels to measure performance," says Boggs. "Most of the research measures whether a person is able to inhale and exhale more air with the nasal strip. Some of that research shows the strips work and some of it shows it doesn't.

How does he explain the popularity of the strips, despite evidence that they don't change blood lactate levels?

"Maybe it's psychological," young researcher speculates. "I've tried them and it does feel like it opens up your nostrils a little bit and makes it feel easier to breathe. Maybe if it feels easier to breathe you perform better. Or maybe because they said this would help athletic performance, the strips just caught on. Now everybody uses them whether or not they really work."