Are you breathing properly?
This title of this blog may seem confusing, at first. How can you breathe properly? Isn’t it just inhale and exhale and voila! – we are breathing(?) Technically yes, that is the general gist of breathing. How do you breathe is really what we are trying to emphasize here. Sit back wherever you are, close your eyes and take a few deep breaths in and out. Pay attention to the way that you are breathing. Does you chest rise and fall? Do you feel yourself getting more relaxed? How about your belly or low back? Do you sense any movement there? No? Well then – physiologically – you are not breathing properly.
In a number of our previous blogs, we have mentioned the importance of proper breathing technique. It is important when we are lifting in the gym, and it is also a valuable tool for reducing stress in our lives. Many of us, though, are actually causing more stress responses in our body because of the way we breathe. The rising and falling of our chest – feeling the ribs expand up into the collar bone, even sometimes seeing our shoulders shrug slightly, is a secondary mechanism for breathing. This uses much smaller muscles like the intercostals (muscles between the ribs), and the muscles of the chest and neck to create space in the rib cage area in order to let the lungs expand. Although this does enable the lungs to expand and therefore take in more oxygen, it does not even come close to how efficient the diaphragm (our primary breathing muscle), is at facilitating breathing.
So how is that causing us stress? Have you ever been stressed and experienced hyperventilating? Short, shallow breaths, are used to pull in any oxygen we can when we are hyperventilating in order to get just enough oxygen to the body. When we breathe into our chest, we mimic the hyperventilating breaths. Your body understands small, shallow breaths as a response to stress and therefore releases cortisol to help you battle or flee from the threat. This constant hum of cortisol can actually be very damaging to the body as it increases inflammation, and damages the lining of blood vessels and airways.
Don’t believe us? Watch the way a baby or a pet breathes. Watch as their stomachs and low back expand and collapse with every breath. Animals and babies rarely recruit their secondary breathing musculature as it is an inefficient way to bring oxygen into the body.
So how are babies and animals breathing into their bellies and not their chest? They, by way of having been barely influenced by modern-day media, are not self-conscious about expand their stomachs. They still have a connection to their diaphragm and it is therefore used at the primary respiratory muscle.
If we look at the trunk of the body between the bottom of the rib cage and the pelvis area it is lined with a number of interwoven muscles that are most commonly known as the core muscles. The diaphragm, which is a dome-like muscle sits at along the inferior borders of the rib cage and act as the ceiling of the core. The pelvic floor, or the muscles that line the bottom of the pelvis, are the base of the core. The abs, transverse abdominals, the spinal muscles, obliques, and the quadratus lumborum are the walls of this structure. This interwoven combination of muscles with fibers running in all different directions are what give our torso rigidity in an area where the only major bones are the vertebrae that connect the ribs and the pelvis. This is why when we breathe right, our stomachs and lower back expand. By pulling the diaphragm down into the core area (as seen to in the image to the right), this highly pressurized area needs to expand in order to handle the displaced area caused by the contracting diaphragm. It does this by stretching out the muscles around the middle.
When our diaphragm is pulled down into the stomach, this also creates more space in the thoracic cavity – the area enclosed by the rib cage. Quick physics lesson – when we increase the volume of a container, we create an area of low concentration. Air moves from areas of high concentration to low concentration. So the space we create in the thoracic cavity when we use our diaphragm creates a significant change in pressure and concentration in the lungs, allowing oxygen to flow into the lungs. You can see in the image below that the diaphragm is a much larger muscle with greater contractile potential than the intercostals.
Take a breath. That was a lot of information crammed into a few paragraphs and yet it describes one of the most fundamental parts of our daily lives. In a world where there is so much going on and new stressors are constantly being added to the list of things we have to manage, take the time to breathe right.
Even if it is just for 10 breaths at the beginning of the day….
And 10 breaths at the end of the day…
… this will lower your stress levels and get you reconnected with the way we were intended to breathe.
Here’s a list of videos you can use to discover ways to use your breath to reduce stress in your daily life.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8AL2DyYpBFc – Crocodile Breathing by Kinetic Sports Rehab
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vca6DyFqt4c – The Ultimate Relaxation Technique: How To Practice Diaphragmatic Breathing For Beginners
By Kai Simon
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4Lb5L-VEm34 – Breathe to Heal by Max Strom from Tedx Cape May