By Laurel Lakey
We tend to take breathing for granted. Without having to think about it, we are constantly replenishing our oxygen supply and ridding ourselves of carbon dioxide. Although breathing can take place without conscious effort, you can also consciously improve the quality of your breathing. This can have a surprisingly significant impact on your health in a number of ways, from increasing your oxygen supply and improving your core strength to reducing stress and promoting self-awareness.
Oxygen is critical for life. We can survive several days without food but only several minutes without oxygen. Oxygen is necessary for the creation of energy, which is needed for all of our cells to function and carry out their various tasks. We need oxygen to move, talk, think and for all of our organs to function. It also cleanses our body of toxins and boosts our immune system.
Unfortunately, most people “chest breathe,” breathing only into the top third of their lungs, which does not deliver the optimal amount of oxygen to their body. Take a moment and notice your own breathing pattern. Does only your chest move when you inhale, or do your chest and belly move together? If only your chest moves, you are not taking your fullest breath. Chest breathing uses only approximately 20 percent of your lung capacity. In order for your lungs to fill all the way up, delivering the highest intake of oxygen, your belly needs to balloon outward as you inhale, which allows the lower lobes of the lung to fill.
The ability to “belly breathe” is dependent upon a muscle called the diaphragm, a large and dome-shaped muscle that sits underneath the lungs and resembles a parachute. When it contracts, it presses downward, pushing the belly outward and creating space for the lower lungs to expand. As it relaxes, the belly retracts and the lungs deflate. Difficulty with belly breathing may indicate that the diaphragm is weak and not contracting properly.
The diaphragm muscle is important not only for breathing and optimal oxygen intake, but it also makes up a component of our core muscular strength. An under-utilized diaphragm may indicate a weakened core, which can contribute to a number of musculoskeletal ailments. Improving your awareness of your diaphragm and exercising it through focused belly breathing will not only improve your oxygen intake but will also support a more integrated and better functioning core.
In addition to the physiological and musculoskeletal benefits of using your diaphragm, belly breathing can also have a positive impact on your emotional and mental state. When you find yourself in a stressful situation, the phrase “stop and take a deep breath” can be more helpful than you might realize. Short and shallow chest breathing has a tendency to trigger our sympathetic nervous system, which controls the body’s response to a perceived threat and activates our “fight or flight” response. Deep belly breathing, on the other hand, triggers the parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for the body’s “rest and digest” function. The next time you find yourself overwhelmed, stop and try to take some full belly breaths and notice if you are better able to respond to whatever overwhelming circumstance you may be encountering.
Focused breathing is also a great tool for improving self-awareness and promoting mindfulness. It can be a quick and simple way to check in with yourself throughout the day and observe your thoughts and feelings. For example, it is easy to walk through your day carrying a level of fatigue, anxiety, apprehension or any other challenging feeling, and not be truly aware that it is there. When we stop and take a few deep breaths, we invite the opportunity for self-observation and can make better choices to address whatever feeling we may be carrying around that was otherwise unobserved.
Belly breathing is highly effective, requires no special equipment and can be done almost anywhere. If you find it difficult to do, try this trick. Lay on your back with your knees bent and feet flat. Place a light object such as a paper cup or small stuffed animal on your belly. As you breathe in, try to push the object upward with your stomach. As you breathe out, bring the object back down toward the floor. It may not come immediately, but keep trying. The benefits are abundant and well worth the effort.
Laurel Lakey is a physical therapist assistant at Dee Physical Therapy in Shelburne. She lives in Charlotte.