This month, I want to highlight the importance of proper breathing. Take a moment, please, to roll your eyes and shake your head at this last statement - I get it. You breathe every minute of every day; if you’re not breathing, you’re dead. Let’s put aside the skepticism and examine the difference between chest breathing and belly breathing. These are the everyday terms for breathing: health professionals, though, refer to thoracic breathing (chest) and diaphragmatic breathing (belly).
Impact of chest breathing/Benefit of belly breathing
So, what’s the problem? It has to do with engagement - or lack thereof - of your diaphragm in the breathing process. Try this exercise: Put your right hand on your chest and your left hand on your abdomen. Take a big breath by slowly inhaling through your nose or mouth (whichever feels more natural). Fill your lungs up and observe which hand rises more. (2) If it’s the right hand, that means you’re a chest breather; left hand indicates belly breathing. Belly breathing means you’re utilizing your diaphragm in the process. It’s an important distinction to note, because the diaphragm is intended to be the primary mover when it comes to proper breathing technique:
“The thoracic diaphragm accomplishes about 75% of the inspiratory effort, the external intercostals 25%. Expiration is largely diaphragm and external intercostal relaxation/stretch, and lung elasticity, with some help from the internal intercostals.” (3)
When you’re not using your diaphragm correctly to breathe (aka belly breathing), the impact is that chest breathing switches your body into a vicious circle of fight-or-flight that stresses every system in your body: “stress causes us to breathe inefficiently, and inefficient breathing causes stress.” (1)
What happens to your body in the long term if you’re a chest breather most of the time? One result is chronic tension - you’re in a constant state of stress, and this can lead to migraines, neck and shoulder pain, backaches, frozen shoulder, whiplash, shoulder tendinitis, and hearing and balance problems. (1,8) Reduced lung function is common in chronic conditions such as asthma, COPD, and heart failure - all conditions that improve with a switch to deep, diaphragmatic breathing: “breathing exercises improve lung function by ‘stretching’ airway tissue and inducing the release of a ‘protective chemical’ known to maintain airway integrity…[deep breathing] preserves the body’s immune function and keeps blood pressure and heart rate in check.” (4)
Once you learn how to breath with your diaphragm, you can incorporate relaxation exercises into the deep breathing. In addition to modalities such as tai chi and yoga, Essentrics also incorporates deep breathing and relaxation techniques with phenomenal results. Recently, Essentrics creator Miranda Esmonde-White led instructors-in-training through such an exercise: “With each breath of relaxation, the muscles let go and allowed the joints to increase their mobility - far more than if they had forced themselves with a contracted muscle…Some of the instructors with tight shoulders noticed their posture open and their shoulders become more slender and far more mobile…As a society, we’re programmed to think that if we work fast and hard, we will see the results quicker - and unfortunately, we don’t take time to relax and breathe.” (7)
How to Change the Way You Breathe
Societal norms tells us we should suck in our guts, not push them out; how do you reconcile that behaviour with expanding your belly during diaphragmatic breathing? Add to that the poor posture of our sedentary lifestyle - it isn’t doing you any favours when it comes to proper breathing: “A good portion of people go about their day with tight traps, shrugged shoulders, rounded backs, and caved-in chests, constantly sucking in their stomachs as they try to breathe.” (2)
If you’re not sure how to start, references 1,2, 4, 5, & 8 (see below) offer guidance and directions on mastering diaphragmatic breathing. Different techniques will appeal to different people, so I’ll leave it to you to try them out and decide which method works best for you. I’ve been contemplating deep breathing (and how to do it properly) for over a month now, and I’m still trying to get the hang of it. So, don’t despair - we’ll work on it together. To be honest, I don’t remember to do it every day. But when I do, I always feel better, happier, more relaxed, less stressed, and full of energy. Isn’t that what everyone wants?
“Small efforts go a long way when practiced regularly.” (4)
Amanda Sterczyk is a Certified Personal Trainer (ACSM), an Exercise is Medicine Canada (EIMC) Fitness Professional, and a Certified Essentrics® Instructor. She offers in-home personal training in central Ottawa. Amanda specializes in helping older adults maintain and increase strength, flexibility, and mobility. No fitness goal is too small, in her opinion.