Breathing can't be that hard, can it?

April 18, 2017



The average person inhales and exhales 16 times a minute, 900+ times an hour and over 23000 times in a day. That’s a LOT of breathing, and most of the time you do it without thinking about it. However, a large majority of people breathe incorrectly. Yes, you did read that right, breathing incorrectly.


How do we breathe?

The main muscle of breathing is your diaphragm, its dome shaped and located at the bottom of your rib cage. when your diaphragm contracts it flattens out, which has the effect of increasing the volume of your thoracic cavity, you'll also notice that your belly pushes out, this is normal. When the diaphragm contracts, the pressure in the thoracic cavity drops and air flows in. Then when the diaphragm relaxes it goes back to its original dome shape, reducing the volume of the thoracic cavity and causing air to be expelled. Now this is a very simplified version of the sequence of events that occur during breathing, but you get the point.

There are also several muscles known as the accessory muscles of breathing. Most of these are located towards the top of your rib cage, their function is to allow us to get a little extra expansion of the thoracic cavity, for example when we are running and need to breathe harder.


Now when I said many people weren’t breathing properly, I meant they were using the incorrect set of muscles. If you work at a desk, or are in a job which is causing you chronic stress, the chances are that you are using your accessory muscles of breathing instead of your diaphragm. Just check, place one hand on your sternum and one on your belly. Observe which moves first, and which moves the most. If everything is coming from the sternum, you are upper rib breathing(accessory muscle). Now this doesn’t sound too bad, but over time, it causes a problem.


Upper rib breathing causes tension in the accessory muscles, which contribute towards a posture you don’t want. You’ve all seen it, hunched shoulders, extended neck and rounded upper back. This posture will eventually lead to stiffness and pain in the neck, upper back and shoulders. It also significantly increases the risk of injuries to the area.


But that isn’t all, when upper rib breathing it has a multitude of other negative effects. The first of which is poor oxygenation of the blood, as less air enters the lungs, less oxygen is absorbed into the blood. The lack of oxygen in your blood leads to a multitude of issues, the most relevant to osteopathy being the reduced healing rate. This is because healing requires energy, and for energy the human body requires oxygen.


Secondly upper rib breathing has an effect of your autonomic nervous system. Upper rib breathing increases your breathing rate, this is because there is less oxygen coming in per breath and the body needs to meet its oxygen demands for respiration. Increasing the breathing rate causes the sympathetic nervous system to increase in activity. The sympathetic nervous system is part of your “fight or flight” response. It causes your heart rate, blood pressure and breathing rate to increase. It also has a strong link to anxiety and stress. Interestingly enough this is a two way street, so being anxious or stressed stimulates the autonomic nervous system, causing upper rib breathing and all of these other unwanted effects. But it also works in the opposite direction, increasing your breathing rate leads to stimulation of the sympathetic system which then creates feelings of stress and anxiety!


As you can see, the way you breathe has a massive effect on the mechanics and wellness of your body, so its important to be doing it correctly.

The exercise I use to “retrain” breathing is known as box breathing, to which I add a little extra.

Start by sitting or lying comfortably, place on hand on your chest and one on your belly, just like you did earlier. Make sure you are breathing from your belly!

Now breathe in for a count of 4, making sure that you inhale through your nose. At the end of inhaling, hold your breath for 4 seconds more. Then slowly breathe out through your mouth, making sure this also lasts at least 4 seconds. Finally hold your breath for 4 seconds more.


Repeat this for 30 breaths as often as possible and you should start seeing results! You’ll also probably feel pretty relaxed afterwards, so it might be a good idea to use it as a way to de-stress if you can find 5 minutes of peace and quiet at work, or even do it as you lay in bed to send you off to sleep easier!


If you have any questions don’t hesitate to contact us!

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