Take a deep breath. Now let it out. Do it again. Do you feel better? More energized? Most of us do. For an involuntary mechanism, breathing gets an awful lot of attention in the fitness and rehabilitation world, and it has even spawned research in the corporate world. Why? Because we don’t tend to do it very well. Most of us breathe shallowly, if at all throughout the day, utilizing our neck and shoulder muscles to help us pull air into our lungs. This creates a characteristic rise and fall of the shoulders with every breath in and out. We probably sit at desks, staring at screens, fully absorbed by what is on that screen and not on what is going on in our bodies. That means, we’re likely slouching, (your mother would not be happy!) with our shoulders rounded and our heads slid forward on our necks. Breathing like this will only add to neck tension and may create headaches and an overwhelming sense of fatigue- not just because your head hurts and your neck is tight, but you’re not getting enough oxygen!
Yoga, Pilates and voice instructors encourage us to breathe with the diaphragm. The diaphragm is your “breathing” muscle. It contracts, pulling downward when you breathe in as the muscles of the rib cage work to expand the chest wall. All of this helps the body pull more air into the lungs. As you probably remember from high school biology, the purpose of that breath in is to get oxygen from the air into your bloodstream, and ultimately to the brain. As you exhale, your diaphragm relaxes, along with the muscles of the rib cage, to push air out. During exercise, this mechanism is helped along by the abdominal muscles. From biology class, you probably also remember that the purpose of the exhale is to remove carbon dioxide from the blood stream- a process made more urgent with vigorous exercise. But enough with the biology lesson. How can you learn to breathe better?
First, improve your posture. Yes, your mother was right (and I’m not just saying that because I am one now.) Good posture not only makes you look taller and more confident, it aligns your body so that you breathe better. When you’re slouched down in your chair with your shoulders rounded and your head craning forward to see the screen, you have “collapsed” your chest, putting the muscles of the rib cage and diaphragm at a disadvantage. The body knows it’s easier to just shrug the shoulders and use the muscles of the neck to pull air in. Sitting up tall allows those rib and diaphragm muscles to do their jobs, pulling more air into your lungs with each breath, and expelling carbon dioxide more efficiently as well.
Try this: sit at the edge of your chair, up on your seat bones, with both feet flat on the floor. Reach the head toward the ceiling to “make yourself taller,” while sliding your chin back over your collar bones. Now take a few medium breaths (let’s not hyperventilate!)
Second, exercise. I’m sure it is no shock to my readers that I would push exercise, but with good reason! Remember, exercise of any kind increases the body’s demand for oxygen, which means it will increase your breathing rate. Especially if you tend to struggle with good posture at work, cardiovascular exercise will force you to use your diaphragm and rib cage muscles to expand the chest wall. This will help to prevent your becoming “stuck” in that rounded-shoulder, forward head position—but only if you use good posture while exercising! Maintaining good posture while exercising also encourages your abdominal muscles to work (and everyone I work with wants effective abdominal muscles!) The abdominal muscles work not only to hold you in good posture, but to assist in efficient exhalation as well.
Try this: utilize good posture while walking, biking hiking, running or rowing—yes, you can do this in the gym as well. If you’re at the gym, close your book or turn off the TV, so you’re not tempted to round your shoulders and crane your neck. Remind yourself to “stay tall” as much as you can. Even after 1 workout like this, you should find that you feel more energized and you breathe better.
Finally, focus on the breath. This is a common meditation technique, and is found at the beginning of Pilates and yoga sessions. Why not make it a daily practice of yours? Focusing on each inhale and exhale will help you control how much air is coming in and out, as well as how it comes in and out. Remember in the beginning when I mentioned that many of us breathe by raising and lowering the shoulders? Focusing on the breath allows you to improve that. With practice, you can learn to keep your shoulders still, and use the diaphragm and rib muscles to draw air in. An added bonus: focus on the breath for a few minutes each day will help you relax and calm your mind. Who couldn’t use that these days?
Try this: lie down on your back with your knees bent and feet on the floor. Be sure to put a little something under your head if you feel any strain in your neck in this position. Place your hands on your lower rib cage (just under your chest) and breathe slowly in through your nose. You should feel your ribs expand, but not your shoulders shrugging. Then breathe out through the mouth. Do this deliberately like you’re blowing out a candle, so that you can feel the ribs relax back down, and maybe even the abdominals helping to push air out. Practicing this breathing technique for a minute or two each day should leave you feeling more relaxed, and help you breathe better throughout the day.
As tedious as it can seem, breathing well is an essential component of well-being. For more help with breathing and exercise, seek out a qualified fitness professional. Whether you enjoy more mainstream exercise, Pilates, yoga or dance, breathing well will help you feel better, improve your fitness, and increase your energy level. So what are you waiting for? Deeeep breath!