Breathing is the most important physiological function from the moment you’re born. It is the first thing we do when we enter the world and the last thing we do when we leave it. We are all born with the ability to breathe perfectly. Look at a newborn child sleeping and you will see lovely expansion of their tummy as they breathe silently through their nose. This is our natural efficient diaphragmatic breathing pattern. Over years various things can occur which interfere with our ability to breathe efficiently. Stress, excessive sitting, trauma, surgeries, falls and pregnancy can all interfere with our ability to breathe efficiently. Since we breathe between 22000-25000 times a day doesn’t it make sense that we do it right? Despite this it is one of the most neglected aspects of the Western Approach to health, exercise, athletic performance and rehabilitation. No movement can be efficient if breathing is not.
Are you a dysfunctional breather?
If you breathe through your mouth, take more than 6-8 breaths per minute and breathe predominantly from your chest and shoulders you more than likely have a dysfunctional pattern. If you do not feel your tummy gently expanding outwards as you breathe at rest through your nose it is unlikely your diaphragm is functioning properly.
Other symptoms are:
o Noisy breathing
o Poor energy levels
o Excessive breathlessness on exertion
o Poor recovery from exercise
o High stress levels/irritability
o Back and muscle pain
The diaphragm is an inverted dome shaped sheet of muscle that separates our chest and abdominal cavity. On inhalation the dome flattens out into the abdomen, displacing the abdominal contents, hence our tummy expands. On exhalation the opposite happens. The diaphragm is the primary muscle involved in breathing. It is assisted by the pec and neck muscles. The diaphragm is also part of our core. Essentially it is the roof have of the core and along with the pelvic floor at the base it sets up the rest of the core muscles to function efficiently. Hence, when breathing patterns become dysfunctional our core doesn’t engage properly and our back or other joints become painful. Many injuries can be resolved by correcting breathing issues and the diaphragms role in muscle imbalance.
Optimal breathing helps to restore alignment of the spine, decrease accessory muscle activity (and overuse), decrease global muscle rigidity, improve oxygenation of the body which decreases pain and sensitivity, improve body awareness, and improve sense of well-being by stimulating the Vagus nerve (activating the Parasympathetic Nervous System [rest and digest] and regulating the Sympathetic Nervous System [fight or flight]). Optimal breathing prepares you for performance. It allows you to find that extra gear. Breathing properly fine tunes your engine, making it more efficient, powerful and resilient.
What can I do?
If you suspect you have a dysfunctional breathing pattern and also have musculoskeletal issues, get assessed by a professional that can diagnose your pattern and its compensations. The following steps however can be employed to improve general breathing patterns to boost your health, energy, mood and performance.
o Focus on breathing gently and controlled through the nose. Keep your mouth closed but don’t clench your teeth. Try to feel gentle expansion of your tummy on the inhalation
o Your breath should be almost silent and should never be forced. Less is more when it comes to breathing.
o If it feels difficult to breathe solely through the nose, place your tongue against the roof of the mouth while breathing through the nose. This will open your airway, making the process easier.
o Keep your eyes open and level with the horizon.
o Once you become comfortable with this, try make your exhalation last twice as long as your inhalation. Aim for 3 seconds in, 5-6 seconds out. Only do this if it is comfortable as provoking any sensation of fighting for breath will render the exercise useless.
Remember, practice makes perfect. Years of poor breathing patterns wont reverse overnight but the beauty of the retraining is that it can be done absolutely anywhere and no-one should know you are doing it.
So, in summary….shut your mouth and reap the benefits of better health, mood, sleep and performance. Happy breathing!