Breathe with your Belly

Do you know how to breathe (properly)? Although this may sound like the setup for a bad joke, it is a question that I actually ask my patients.

What I mean when I ask this, is are you only using your chest to breathe, or are you engaging your diaphragm (belly breathing)? In normal breathing, the primary respiratory muscles are used, the intercostals (between the ribs) and the diaphragm. In heavier breathing (like during exercise), accessory muscles including the scalenes, SCM, levator scapulae and pec minor are used. If you are a “chest breather”, these muscles are typically being engaged even during normal, quiet breathing, which can lead to pain and postural dysfunction.

There is a very easy way to assess how you are currently breathing. Lay comfortably on your back, with one hand on your chest and the other on your stomach. Now the challenging part – try to breathe as normally as possible. Close your eyes, and give it some time to get into your normal rhythm. Now, think about what your hands are doing. Is one moving more than the other? When is each one moving?

Ideally, you want there to be very little movement of the hand on your chest. Rather, you want to feel the hand over your stomach do the majority of the movement. Keep your hands in this position, and experiment a little. Can you focus on sending the breath deeper, causing more movement of the belly hand?

This can be challenging at first, particularly if you are used to mostly using your chest. Practice pushing the belly out (hand moves up) while you inhale, and feel it fall while you exhale while laying down with hands in place. Once this is comfortable, practice the same but while seated. As you practice this action more, it will become more natural and you can begin to integrate this type of breathing into your day to day. You should get more comfortable doing this without the hands in place to cue the movement, but can always try placing them to check in with how you are doing.

Now that I’ve explained how to do this diaphragmatic breathing, why should you add this practice? Proper muscle recruitment and posture are just one aspect of why this type of breathing is important. Another is that this type of breathing, especially when done purposefully, is actually a great way to increase core muscle strength and stability. If you have core stability in mind, practice your breath laying down, inhaling through the nose and exhaling through the mouth while thinking about recruiting the abdominal muscles throughout movement. Keep in mind that during the exhale, it is less about sucking the bellybutton down to the floor, and more about tensing across the muscles (bringing the sides towards the middle). Similarly, this is in important breathing technique to utilize postpartum, as it also activates the pelvic floor. If you are interested in this as postpartum rehab, be sure to discuss with your healthcare practitioner before starting.

Diaphragmatic breathing (particularly when breathing in through the nose, and out through the mouth) is a great technique if you are experiencing stress and anxiety. Using this slow breathing pattern causes stimulation of the vagus nerve. This nerve is unique in that activating it actually lowers the “fight or flight” response in your body and promotes relaxation by activating the parasympathetic nervous system. You can increase this effect by lengthening your exhale compared to your inhale. Practice spending 1-2 minutes of breathing while focusing on expanding the belly with each inhale through the nose, and taking an extra long exhale through the mouth. You should notice that this helps to slow your heart rate, and may make you feel more relaxed.

*Educational content only, not meant as medical advice. Please speak to your healthcare practitioner to discuss any concerns and before starting any new rehabilitation or treatment.

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