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By: Lynn Hewette, PT
For a few moments, stop breathing. Don’t take in any extra air, just exhale and stop. Now, keep holding your breath for a few moments. Keep holding a little longer! Now, breathe normally.
How did that long pause feel? Did you feel like you could go on for a bit longer? How about a couple of minutes? Realistically, most of us would pass out long before that point.
Here is an interesting tidbit – we as humans can live about three weeks without food, three days without water, but only two to three minutes without air. Breathing is so important that we cannot live long without it, but when we make efforts to improve our health, we typically start by vowing to change our food choices, get more exercise, or drink more water. These are good changes, but isn’t it interesting that the changes we make first are in the areas we can deny ourselves the longest and still survive?
Take a moment to assess your breathing pattern:
1. Sit tall in your chair and take a couple of deep breaths.
2. Did you feel like you became a little taller? Did your chest rise?
3. If so, you are likely breathing from the chest, a pattern that is out of sync with the body’s design for breathing.
Nearly nine out of 10 people breathe this way. When you breathe from the chest, you use your neck and shoulder muscles to help lift the chest and expand the lungs, but that’s not what those muscles are designed to do. The widest part of your lungs are at the bottom of your ribs. If you breathe from the chest, the lungs aren’t fully filling with air and you have to breathe faster to get all the air you need.
So, how are we supposed to breathe? Natural, optimal breathing is not from the chest, but from the belly. It happens around the middle and expands outward. Think about a sleeping toddler or your pet, their bellies really moves as they breathe!
1. Take a moment to put your fingertips under your lower ribs and dig in a little. Under there, attached to those ribs, is the diaphragm, the muscle dedicated to breathing.
2. As you inhale, your belly should rise and the ribs should move up and out like a handle on a bucket.
3. This allows the lungs to expand and fill fully; a real deep breath is seen all around the midsection as the ribs expand and the belly comes out.
4. With the exhale, everything comes back in. The rate of breathing is slower because more air is taken in at each breath.
We know the importance of breathing, so how do the majority of us end up breathing the wrong way? Slouched posture negatively affects the quality of the breath, a habit well ingrained in us by the time we reach adulthood due to sitting for long periods of time at school and work. Sometimes the struggle with body image, just the simple desire to make the stomach appear flatter, results in constant tightening of the abdomen. If you walk around that way, you will breathe from the chest since the breath has nowhere to go but up.
Breathing is about more than just getting air. Shallow, rapid breathing patterns can trigger the body’s stress response and negatively affect your health causing:
• Stress, anxiety, and mental agitation
• Emotional feelings
• Lower quality sleep
• Higher heart rate
• Tense back, neck, and shoulder muscles
• Poor digestion and immunity
• Clammy hands, sweating, and jitters
• Churning of the stomach
• Inability to relax
• Trouble with memory
Deeper breathing reverses the stress response and leads to a slower breathing rate, lower blood pressure, and relaxation in the brain and body. When practiced regularly, deep breathing can have lasting positive effects on your health and well-being. The most powerful thing you can do for yourself in this moment is to breathe deeply! So be aware of your breathing as often as you are able, whenever you remember.