Breathe Deeper to Improve Health and Posture

Medically reviewed by Peggy Pletcher, MS, RD, LD, CDE on June 6, 2016Written by Sarah Dalton

What is deep breathing?

You might be amazed to learn that the way you breathe can impact your whole body, helping to regulate important functions such as heart rate and blood pressure, as well as reinforcing proper body mechanics that put less stress and strain on your body as you move. Deep breathing is associated with better health, yet the busy pace of life, coupled with a sedentary work environment, has conditioned many of us to only take quick, shallow breaths. Over time, this weakens the strength of our respiratory muscles and creates tension in the upper body that can alter our posture and undermine our health. If you’re a shallow breather, regular physical activity and brief sessions of respiratory muscle training can reverse these symptoms and help to improve your quality of life.

How do we breathe?

Air is inhaled and exhaled by active contractions of your respiratory muscles that surround our lungs. During inhalation, your diaphragm contracts to create space in your chest cavity for your lungs to expand. Your intercostal muscles, located between the ribs, assist your diaphragm by elevating your rib cage to allow more air to be taken into your lungs. Accessory muscles around your neck and collarbone assist the intercostals if breathing becomes impaired. These muscles, which include the sternocleidomastoid, serratus anterior, pectoralis minor and scalenes, all increase the speed and amount of movement your ribs are capable of.

Different factors that affect breathing rate

Our breathing rate can vary with age, weight, tolerance to exercise, and general health. For the average adult, a normal breathing rate consists of 12 to 18 breaths per minute. However, several factors can impair respiratory function, creating a pattern of quick, shallow breathing. Sudden or chronic pain, as well as emotional state, activate a division of our autonomic nervous system that governs many bodily systems, such as your heart rate, body temperature, breathing rate, and digestion. Chronic stress and strong emotions, such as rage or fear, all intensify your “fight or flight” response, which can impair the way these systems function. Poor posture also contributes to breathing pattern dysfunction, which is commonly seen in those who spend long hours sitting each day. Rounded shoulders and a forward head posture cause the muscles around the chest to tighten, limiting the ability of the rib cage to expand and causing us to take more rapid, yet more shallow breaths.

How posture and breathing affect movement

Breathing from your chest relies on secondary muscles around your neck and collarbone instead of your diaphragm. When this breathing pattern is accompanied by poor posture, many muscles in your upper body lose their ability to properly function. The longer we sit during the day, the less our body is able to fight the forces of gravity and maintain a strong, stable core. Tight accessory muscles around the chest, in particular the pectoralis minor and scalenes, cause a rounded shoulder and forward head posture. This weakens the back by inhibiting the lattissimus dorsi, middle trapezius, and rhomboids, as well as the quadratus lumborum, which help us maintain an upright posture. Tight accessory muscles can also cause shoulder instability and impingement syndromes by inhibiting the serratus anterior, biceps tendon, posterior deltoid and infraspinatus, which allow us to freely move our shoulder blades into a variety of positions.

Reinforcing proper breathing patterns

The ability to maintain a slow, steady breathing pattern enhances core stability, helps improve tolerance to high-intensity exercise, and reduces the risk of muscle fatigue and injury. If you’re unsure of whether you’re a shallow breather, simply place your palm against your abdomen beneath your rib cage and exhale. Take a deep breath and follow the movement of your hand. If your hand moves as your abdomen expands, you’re breathing correctly. If your hand only moves slightly but your shoulders elevate, you may want to consider practicing breathing exercises to strengthen your muscles and reinforce proper breathing patterns. Performing deep breathing exercises in conjunction with general fitness training can increase the strength of the respiratory muscles. You may want to purchase a breathing device for personal use. Breathing techniques, such as roll breathing, can be used to develop full use of the lungs while controlling the rhythm of respiration.

There are many benefits to deep breathing. It helps to foster a sense of calm, reduce stress and anxiety levels, and lower blood pressure. In fact, deep breathing is the basis for all meditative and mindfulness practices. Practicing healthy breathing patterns will also allow you to build your endurance for strenuous exercise. Taking balanced, equal breaths should be your goal. A good way to practice balanced breathing is to take a deep inhale and count to four, then release a deep exhale to the same count. You can learn more about the mind and body connection and other ways to maintain a healthy lifestyle here.

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