The way you breathe can impact your whole body, helping to regulate important functions such as heart rate and blood pressure. It can also reinforce proper body mechanics that put less stress on your body as you move.
Deep breathing is also called abdominal or belly breathing. It involves inhaling slowly and deeply through the nose, causing the lungs to fill with air as the belly expands.
This type of breathing is associated with many health benefits, from reducing stress to lowering blood pressure.
While these benefits are widely known, the busy pace of life plus a sedentary work environment have conditioned many of us to take only quick, shallow breaths. Over time, this weakens the strength of our respiratory muscles. It also 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.
Air is inhaled and exhaled by contractions of the respiratory muscles that surround your lungs. The diaphragm is the primary muscle used in the process of inhalation. It’s a dome-shaped muscle located inside the lower ribs at the base of the chest. During inhalation, your diaphragm contracts to create space in your chest cavity for your lungs to expand.
Your intercostal muscles, located between your ribs, assist your diaphragm by elevating your rib cage to allow more air into your lungs. Other muscles around your neck and collarbone assist the intercostals if breathing becomes impaired. These muscles include the sternocleidomastoid, serratus anterior, pectoralis minor, and scalenes. All of these increase the speed and amount of movement your ribs are capable of.
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 can activate a section of the nervous system that governs many bodily systems, including your breathing rate, heat rate, and body temperature. Chronic stress and strong emotions such as rage or fear intensify your fight-or-flight response, which can impair your breathing rate.
Poor posture also contributes to breathing pattern dysfunction. This is commonly seen in people who spend long hours sitting each day. Rounded shoulders and a forward head posture cause the muscles around the chest to tighten. That tightening limits the ability of the rib cage to expand and causes people to take more rapid, shallow breaths.
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 aren’t able to function properly.
The longer you sit during the day, the less your body is able to fight the forces of gravity and maintain a strong, stable core.
Tight accessory muscles around the chest cause a rounded shoulder and forward head posture. This weakens the back by inhibiting muscles that help maintain an upright posture, including the:
- latissimus dorsi
- middle trapezius
- quadratus lumborum
Tight accessory muscles can also cause shoulder instability and impingement syndromes. The tightness can inhibit muscles and tendons that allow you to move your shoulder blades freely. These muscles and tendons include the:
- serratus anterior
- biceps tendon
- posterior deltoid
A slow, steady breathing pattern enhances core stability, helps improve tolerance to high-intensity exercise, and reduces the risk of muscle fatigue and injury. Taking balanced, equal breaths should be your goal.
A good way to practice balanced breathing is to take a deep inhale, count to four, and then release a deep exhale to the same count.
If you’re unsure of whether you’re a shallow breather, 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 along with general fitness training can increase the strength of the respiratory muscles. Breathing techniques such as roll breathing can also be used to develop full use of the lungs while controlling the rhythm of respiration.
If you have a neuromuscular disorder, lung disease, or injuries from trauma, you may want to purchase a breathing exercise machine to increase lung volume and encourage deep breathing.
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 also allows you to build your endurance for strenuous exercise.