Breathing is something that we all do all the time without even thinking about it. However, breathing properly takes practice. Breathing exercises are actually important tools that we can utilize to improve our overall health and performance.
While breathing may seem like an easy, automated task, it is actually a complex exercise that many people are unknowingly performing improperly.
To understand this, we first need to understand the anatomy and physiology.
How does breathing work?
The main purpose of breathing is to deliver oxygen to our blood and offload carbon dioxide that is produced during metabolism. If you’d like a refresher on why this is important click here: https://beverlychiropractic.com/blog/life-by-design/oxidative-stress/
As we inhale, air first enters our nose. The nose humidifies the air and filters out debris. The air then travels down our pharynx and trachea into our lungs. There it travels through smaller and smaller tubes until it reaches the alveoli. These tiny sacs of air allow for the exchange of gasses with the blood.
Our primary breathing muscle is our diaphragm. This dome-shaped muscle separates our thoracic cavity that holds our heart and lungs from our abdominal cavity that contains our digestive organs. It attaches to our lumbar vertebrae in the back, our lower ribs on the sides, and our sternum in the front. As this muscle contracts it moves down into the abdomen. This increases the thoracic cavity volume and creates negative pressure which pulls air into the lungs. As it relaxes, it rises up again. This decreases the volume and air is expelled.
Besides breathing, the diaphragm also serves another purpose in the body. We have all heard that having a strong core is essential to proper posture, function, performance, and preventing injury to our backs. However, few people realize that one of the main muscles of our core is actually our diaphragm. When our diaphragm is contracted, it increases intra-abdominal pressure which provides strength and stability to our spine and core.
The Nervous System
Additionally, breathing also serves as an important regulator of the nervous system. Like chiropractic care, breathing allows us to influence our nervous system. How we breathe affects our heart rate, blood pressure, and our response to stress. Slow, deep, diaphragmatic breaths activate our parasympathetic or “rest and restore” portion of our nervous system while shallow, fast breathing activates our sympathetic or “fight or flight” nervous system.
Now that we understand how proper breathing works, we can explain the two main ways that people breathe improperly.
How do people breathe improperly?
There are two main ways that people tend to breathe improperly:
1. Mouth breathing instead of nose breathing
We were designed to breathe through our noses whenever possible. When we breathe through our mouths, the air bypasses the filtration system of our noses. This allows pollutants, allergens, and pathogens to pass into our respiratory tracts more easily and make us sick. The nose is our first line of defense to protect the respiratory system from irritation and infection. It also conditions the air, making it warmer, moister, and easier on our lungs. Nose breathing also triggers the production of nitric oxide. This molecule expands our blood vessels and passageways in our lungs. This increases oxygen in the blood and lowers blood pressure. Breathing through the mouth dries out the oral cavity leading to tooth decay, bad breath, and even snoring.
2. Chest breathing instead of belly breathing
Many of us take small, shallow breaths that do not fully engage our diaphragms. We also rely too much on our accessory breathing muscles in our chest and shoulders. When you breathe, your belly should move in and out, expanding with each inhale and returning with each exhale. If your belly is not moving as you breathe or actually moves inward when you inhale, you are not properly using your diaphragm. Other signs of this improper breathing are if your rib cage chest is moving when you breathe or if your shoulders rise and fall as you breathe in and out. With proper breathing, you should expand horizontally around your waist, not vertically up into your chest and shoulders. Diaphragmatic or belly breathing allows for greater expansion of the lungs, greater oxygen absorption, and better core stabilization. It also activates the parasympathetic nervous system which slows heart rate and promotes rest, recovery, focus, and relaxation.
How can we improve our breathing?
Here are 5 great exercises we can use to promote proper breathing and take advantage of all the wonderful health benefits that has to offer. When performing these exercises, always remember to stop if you feel short of breath, light headed, or dizzy and consult with a doctor before continuing.
1. Diaphragmatic Breathing
This is a great way to train your body to properly activate your diaphragm when breathing.
- Lay on your back with one hand on your stomach and one hand on your chest.
- Breathe in through your nose so the air fills your abdomen like a balloon. Your core should expand 360 degrees in all directions. You should feel the hand on your stomach rise before the hand on your chest as well as your low back pressing into the ground and sides expanding laterally.
- Breathe out, letting the hand on your stomach fall down again.
- Progress to IAP breathing when ready.
2. Intra-Abdominal Pressure (IAP) Breathing
This is a great way to learn how to engage your core to stabilize the spine and prevent injury.
- Repeat the steps for diaphragmatic breathing, stopping the breath before the hand on your chest rises.
- Breathe out but this time keep your core expanded in all directions as it was during the inhale.
- Practice maintaining core expansion as you breathe in and out which will be difficult in the beginning.
- Eventually, you should be able to progress to a seated and then standing position. You should also begin to incorporate IAP breathing when doing other core stability exercises, lifting heavy things, or other athletic endeavors.
3. Alternate Nostril Breathing
This practice is called Nadi Shodhana in yoga. It is a great way to promote nose breathing, increase mindfulness, and relax.
- Sit tall with shoulders relaxed.
- Block your right nostril with your thumb or finger and inhale through your left nostril.
- Block your left nostril with your thumb or finger and exhale through your right nostril.
- Inhale through your right nostril.
- Block your right nostril and exhale through your left nostril.
4. Mouth Taping
Many people place tape over their mouths to keep their lips together and force themselves to only breathe through their noses. Some people will even do this while sleeping as it can prevent mouth breathing at night which can contribute to snoring, dry mouth, and bad breath. Always check with your doctor to make sure this exercise is okay for you before trying it, especially if you are going to do it while sleeping. Do not try this if you are unable to breathe through your nose properly due to other conditions. Be sure to use porous tape that is designed for use on human skin to avoid irritation.
5. Physiological Sigh
This exercise can be performed any time to immediately relieve stress and relax. This pattern of breathing happens spontaneously during sleep when there is a buildup of carbon dioxide in the blood. It consists of a double inhale followed by an exhale. The second inhale allows for greater intake of oxygen and the offload of more carbon dioxide.
- Take a long inhale through your nose.
- Immediately take a second inhale through your nose.
- Slowly exhale through your nose or mouth.
- Repeat as needed.