Breathing is one of the few bodily functions which, to a certain point, can be controlled both consciously and unconsciously. However, most people don’t think about or even notice how they breathe unless they happen to be running up a flight of stairs, sniffling from a cold, or in the process of giving birth.
In truth, breathing is affected by many factors including fitness levels, stress, poor posture, pain, obesity, the weather, and a myriad of other internal and external variables.
Optimizing our oxygen intake can have far reaching positive effects on the body including:
- Gives you more energy
- Reduces stress and mental / physical fatigue
- Reduces chest pains due to tight muscles
- Opens up the chest to make breathing easier and fuller
- Eases the strain on the heart by increasing oxygen to the heart
- Slows your heart rate and steadies your blood pressure
- Releases and reduces muscular spasm and tension that may be causing pain
- Makes you able to recover faster from exertion
- Reverses the negative stress reactions from your brain that keep you awake, such as adrenaline.
Do I have a Breathing Problem?
While most of us wouldn’t identify ourselves as having breathing problems, almost all of us could benefit from improved breathing for a variety of other issues that we don’t automatically link with our breathing. For example, evidence supports a link between poor breathing and back pain. This makes sense as trunk muscles perform both postural and breathing functions, so disruption in one function can negatively impact the other. Also, failing to breathe normally causes our rib cage to stiffen over time which limits our flexibility and makes tasks such as twisting our body to swim, swing a golf club or play tennis much harder to do effectively over time.
Similarly, shoulder and neck pain are also often related to poor breathing strategies as we tend to overuse the muscles in the neck and at the top of the shoulders to help us breathe when they should be relaxed.
If you have pain in your neck, shoulder or back, it’s likely you do have a breathing problem and could benefit from breathing exercises.
Posture and Breathing
We know that prolonged sitting and especially sitting in a slumped posture puts excessive strain on our backs, but did you realize it also compromises our breathing? It does this by limiting the ability of the trunk and ribcage to expand fully, thereby causing us to breathe more through our bellies where there is less resistance to expansion than through the rigid trunk. Add to this the frequently observed posture many people maintain of allowing their shoulders to roll forward or become hunched up towards their ears and breathing properly becomes an impossible feat! If you have poor posture, you can bet your breathing is not ideal, and while correcting the posture itself is one step in the right direction, you’ll need to also address your poor breathing habits if you want to make lasting changes
How Should I Breathe?
Think of your lungs as a small vest that hangs down from your collarbones to the bottom of your ribs. When breathing, try to take the air into the area under the sides and back of the rib cage as this is where there is the most lung volume.
A Basic Exercise
Lie flat on your back with your knees bent or straight whichever is more comfortable for you. First breathe normally for a minute or so and pay attention to where your lungs fill up. Does your chest rise and fall or does most of the air seem to fill up your belly?
Now place your hands palm down one on each side of your rib cage. As you breathe in, you should feel your rib cage expand up and out to the sides like a bucket handle, and then recoil as you relax and exhale. Can you feel the air filling up the backside of your lungs and pressing your ribs gently into the floor? You shouldn’t feel any muscles working as you exhale, let the air flow out passively.
You can also perform this exercise whilst sitting or standing but make sure you are sitting in a relatively upright position rather than slumping in poor posture and compressing your rib cage down onto the lungs.
If you have difficulty with this exercise, or notice that your rib cage fails to move with your breathing or perhaps it moves less on one side than the other, you may wish to have an assessment a physiotherapist who can help you identify your problem areas and give you individualized treatment and exercises specific to your body.