Take a Deep Breath

Breathing, it is something we all do, all the time, and yet many of us do it very poorly. Take a deep breath. Now exhale and let it go. If you are like many people, as you inhale, your shoulders rise to your ears. Then as you exhale, your belly relaxes forward. This common breathing pattern is the result of muscle atrophy, lack of muscle strength and coordination, muscle tightness, poor posture and stress.

Proper breathing techniques can assist with weight loss, improve overall health, reduce stress, tone your abdominals and some claim, lead to enlightenment.

Although we are always breathing, we seldom use more than a third of the upper portion of the lungs. This level of breathing supplies an adequate amount of oxygen for moderate activities, such as leisure walking, washing the car, and vacuum cleaning. The lower two-thirds of the lungs don’t get used.

Over time the muscles that control deep breathing get weak, tight and forget how to move.

The diaphragm, a dome shaped muscle located at the base of the ribs, the intercostals muscles located between the ribs, and the abdominals are the primary muscle groups that control deep breathing. Remember how your shoulders lifted toward yours ears when you inhaled deeply. These are the shoulder, neck, and chest muscles overcompensating for lack of strength, flexibility and coordination of your deep breathing muscles.

The primary muscle groups involved in breathing need flexibility as well as strength. As you inhale, the abdominal muscles and intercostals between the ribs should stretch to allow for the expansion of the chest. When these muscles are tight they form a prison around the lungs. The image of “rock hard abs” as a fitness goal is not so desirable in terms of how the abs function. They need to be strong and flexible for optimal breathing.

Poor posture plays a role in shallow breathing habits as well. As the body slumps forward the lungs get squeezed by the rib cage and compressed into the internal organs. This limits the ability of the rib cage to expand and contract. The abdominal muscles are restricted in their range of motion.

Stress is very bad for us. Research proves it and our bodies feel it. Stress, the primitive response known as “flight or fight syndrome,” also strongly affects breathing. Breathing becomes rapid as the body prepares to attack or be attacked. The breath is held, to hear the predator approaching and avoid detection. Do you ever find yourself holding your breath when concentrating or learning something new? Stressful responses can become bad breathing habits.

One of the most common questions my personal training clients ask me while performing an exercise is “Should I be breathing in or out?” My answer is “yes.” The timing of the breath is far less important than the quality of the breath. The general rule for weight training is to exhale on the effort. In other words, if you are pulling, that is the effort and you should exhale. This emphasizes the contraction and isolation of the primary muscle group exercised.

The general rule for Pilates is: inhale as the body expands and exhale as the body contracts. So if you are pulling, you would inhale. This emphasizes the elongation of the body and helps to integrate the entire body into the movement. The same exercise, with a different emphasis, has a different breathing pattern.

The question isn’t “when” should I breathe, but “how” should I breathe? While there are many breathing exercises with varying emphasis and philosophies, there is agreement on the key points of optimal deep breathing.

  1. Proper breathing is diaphragmatic. Upon inhalation, the diaphragm draws downward, the abdominals soften, the rib cage expands and air is drawn into the lungs. Upon exhalation, the diaphragm moves upward, the abdominals contract, the rib cage contracts, as air is pushed out of the lungs. Note, the shoulders are relaxed rather than lifted to the ears.
  2. Proper breathing involves mostly the nose. The nose is a built-in filter and air conditioning system, reducing the intake of pollutants as it warms and humidifies the air.

The abdominals especially benefit from deep breathing practice. Forget the crunches and try practicing deep breathing. It sounds easy, but can be surprisingly strenuous. Initially, people tend to over-breathe, or hyperventilate, which can lead to light-headedness. Try this. Put your hands on your belly and feel how it moves as you yawn. The belly moves outward as the air moves inward. Then the belly move inward as the air moves out. Now try again, but breathe in through your nose instead of your mouth. Let your belly stretch. Exhale, (through your mouth or nose) and feel your belly move inward. Easy!

Losing weight without proper breathing is virtually impossible because fat needs oxygen in order to burn. Activities that increase your rate of breathing such as walking fast, dancing, running and other cardiovascular exercise challenge the body to take in and use oxygen. Over time, with training, the body becomes a more efficient, oxygen using, fat burning machine.

Breathwork is a major component of mind-body exercise such as yoga, pilates, tai chi, and qigong, not only for its physical benefits, but for its mental benefits. Deep breathing is used to draw the focus inward to the present moment, or centering. The power of breath is considered life changing. When Eckhart Tolle, author and spiritual teacher, was asked what spiritual seminars or workshops he would recommend, he said, “Be aware of your breathing as often as you are able, whenever you remember. Do that for one year, and it will be more powerfully transformative than attending all of these courses. And it’s free.”

Pilates master and author, Rael Isacowitz, summarizes the benefits of deep breathing:

  • Oxygenates the blood and nourishes the body on a cellular level
  • Expels toxins from the body
  • Improves circulation
  • Improves skin tone
  • Calms the mind and the body
  • Encourages concentration
  • Provides a rhythm for movement
  • Assists in activating target muscles Breathing is something we all do, all the time, that can improve with proper technique. You can practice breathing anywhere, at any time and it requires no special equipment. It improves your physical health as well as your mental health. Relax, take a deep diaphragmatic breath, and change your life. Paula Skinner, CPT, has over 25 years of experience in the fitness industry. She has owned her own fitness studio, represented the American Heart Association as a speaker on health topics, and presented continuing education workshops for other instructors. Paula is one of the first trainers certified by ACE and holds numerous other certifications.  

By Paula Skinner, CPT

Article written for Destination Tampa Bay magazine