Why Breathing is Important (Outside of the Obvious)

Author: Justine Cosman, PT, DPT : Doctor of Physical Therapy, Business Owner, Associate Professor, and Blog Contributor. Explores common client questions and helps find solutions for every day functional health concerns, and then some. Loves empowering others, seeking adventure, and learning every day. Learn more about Justine on Google+.

Breathing - the action that occurs to fill our lungs with air and helps to supply oxygen to our body. It is vital for life, but can it have more of an impact?

Test Your Breathing

Place one hand on your chest and the other hand on your stomach. Take a deep breathe. What moved more - your chest or your stomach?

Chest Breathing

If you felt the hand on your chest move more than your stomach, you may prefer to breathe through your chest. This tends to lead to shallow breathing and reinforces the use of accessory muscles for breathing (muscles that are better used for higher cardio moments, like running away from a bear). The muscles to focus include the upper trapezius and the scalenes.

It is more likely to occur with "mouth breathing" styles and if the chin is forward on the body.

On the whole, this is not bad, as it does bring the oxygen to your body, however should you feel tight in the upper neck/chest area, it can contribute to common aches and pains.

Belly Breathing

If you felt the hand on your stomach move more, you may be a "belly breather." This tends to lead to fuller breathes and reinforces using the diaphragm to fill the lungs with air (see below). This type of breathing is reinforced with a more upright, neutral postural positioning. It reduces stress to the upper shoulders/neck and places it on the intended muscle designed to perform the monotonous daily task of breathing :) 

Deep Breathing

Deep breathing is not something that we do every moment of the day (nor should it be), however it can be therapeutic in many ways.

  1. It can help train belly breathing: Should you have tension in the upper shoulders/neck, this can help to reduce the load on those areas. It can also help strengthen our abdomen, which is important for good support and movement.

  2. It improves mindfulness: It is amazing how taking a moment out of a busy schedule can be grounding, both physically and mentally.

  3. It stimulates our "Rest and Digest" response: This can include stress reduction, improved blood flow (reducing hypertension), and even improved ability to sleep.

  4. It can even reduce pain: By stimulating the "rest and digest" system, we can quiet some of the body's "alertness" to pain

How can you practice?

Remember that breathing test position up above? Find a quite, comfortable place to lie down at home and focus on expanding your breathe through your stomach (raising that hand) and reducing it through the chest (keeping the "chest hand" in place). Breathe  in for the count of 4 seconds and out for a count of 6 seconds. Try to maintain this over a 5-10 minute period (it is tougher than it sounds). This should remain comfortable. Should it not be, contact your physician.

How can a physical therapist help?

Soreness in your neck and shoulders? Difficulty getting into a good postural position? Difficulty getting a full breathe because of stiffness? A physical therapist can help guide you with exercises tailored to improving your mobility and strength to not only improve your breathe, but also your function and well being. Contact us if these symptoms describe you.