Dysfunctional breathing can have an insidious impact on one's overall well-being, yet most of us have less-than-ideal breathing patterns and most of us are completely unaware of how we breathe.
Abnormal breathing can contribute to lower back and neck pain, fatigue, trigger points in muscles and even those pesky calf cramps that wake people up in the night. A less-than-ideal breathing pattern will not only decrease your stamina during a workout, it will decrease your body's ability to recover and your overall energy and sense of well-being.
It is time to make relearning how to breathe a conscious goal! Add the "three-dimensional diaphragmatic breathing" exercise below to your gym routine.
Since we breathe continuously throughout our day, the consequences of even a slight deviation from the ideal breathing pattern quickly adds up.
If my recommendation to relearn something as natural as breathing seems odd, just think about how frequently you breathe. It makes sense that the consequences of even a slight deviation from the ideal breathing pattern would quickly add up.
What is ideal or normal breathing?
Ideal or normal breathing is often referred to as "three-dimensional diaphragmatic breathing," meaning there is synchronized motion of the rib cage, abdomen and diaphragm that allows the body to pump a relatively high amount of air through itself.
What is abnormal breathing?
Abnormal breathing, known as thoracic breathing or "chest breathing," is produced proportionally more by the accessory muscles of respiration (mostly neck muscles), versus the lower rib cage and diaphragm. This leads to the muscles of the neck and shoulder becoming overworked and relatively less air being pumped through the body.
Chest breathers tend to take more breaths a minute, which affects respiratory chemistry, leading to higher acidity in muscles, lower blood flow and increased vascular constriction. The change in respiratory chemistry contributes to aches, pains, fatigue and trigger points.
Breathing patterns exist on a continuum. No one has completely "wrong" breathing patterns or an absolutely perfect pattern all the time. On one extreme would be an obvious dysfunction, such as hyperventilation, but even people who usually have ideal breathing patterns most likely go through times of stress where they adopt slightly less ideal patterns. The trick is to learn what an ideal pattern is, become mindful of how you breathe in different situations, then tweak your pattern when needed.
How to test if you are a chest breather
Stand in front of a mirror. Breathe in and see what happens. Your torso should expand slightly, but your chest and neck should stay fairly relaxed.
If, as you breathe in, all of the muscles pop out of your neck and your chest rises before your torso expands, you are probably chest breathing (and also probably breathing too aggressively).
Four steps to fix your breathing
1. "Relearn" how to breathe:
Lie on your back. Place a light book on your stomach and one hand on the side of your waist so that your fingers reach slightly under your lower back. Place your other hand on your upper chest and neck. Breathe into your diaphragm, expanding the air equally into the hand that is placed on your side and into your stomach. The book should rise slightly but the hand on your chest should not move.
The image I use is an expanding umbrella: Aim for your midsection to expand in three directions like a well-functioning umbrella – not like a wind-beaten umbrella that only expands in one direction. The hand on your chest should not rise, or if it does, it should rise last. You should not feel your neck contract or tighten.
Once you can breathe properly on your back, practise breathing in more functional positions. Try proper breathing while on all fours, standing, sitting, walking and even running.
2. Fix your posture:
Biomechanically poor posture can create distortions throughout your rib cage, affecting how you breathe. Want proof? Round yourself forward and try breathing into your entire diagram. Then stand up tall and try it again. You will have more freedom to take deep breaths when using good posture.
Work on fixing your posture. Get an ergonomic assessment of your work space, and at the gym open up your chest and strengthen your upper back. At work take hourly breaks to get up, walk around and stretch.
3. Lower your stress level:
There is a negative-feedback loop between feeling stressed and improper breathing – the most extreme example being hyperventilation. Stress and anxiety negatively affect your breathing patterns, and improper breathing can contribute to feeling stressed and anxious. It is a vicious cycle.
Break the cycle. Meditate, develop a bedtime ritual that helps your system calm down, try tai chi or other mindfulness modalities, get quality sleep and remember to make time during your day to relax and breathe.
4. Take the colour challenge:
This is a great way to become mindful of your breathing patterns throughout the day. Pick a colour. Whenever you see the colour throughout the day, take a mindfulness moment: Stop, relax and check your breathing, posture and stress level.