Improve Your Breathing in 3 Easy Steps

-  Submitted by Dr. Marygray Lanier Stewart, PT, DPT, OCS. 

The breath – something so basic, yet so essential to our survival.  We breathe naturally without even having to think about it.  Even though this is something that happens automatically, most people don't realize the importance of breathing correctly to enhance the body's function.  Every breath oxygenates the blood which is then delivered to other systems of the body including the brain, heart, other organs, and muscles to allow for proper function.

As a small business owner, it is important to note that physical therapists see a variety of patients including many small business owners and their employees with a variety of conditions – such as neck, back and shoulder pain and those having difficulty tolerating basic daily activities like walking – where incorrect breathing is contributing to their symptoms.  When you breathe, it is important to allow the lungs to fully expand.  This, in turn, allows the little muscles between each rib to move and fully expand the ribcage to maintain normal mobility through the trunk and spine.  This also ensures that you are getting enough oxygen to the rest of the body.  

So many people today have sedentary jobs which require sitting for long hours hunched over a desk or computer.  

Also, the excessive use of smartphones and tablets contribute to poor posture which negatively affects breathing mechanics.  This creates compression throughout the upper body, especially the trunk, and restricts the rib cage from fully expanding.  This forces other muscles to assist.  Over time, this increases the tension in these muscles which can lead to many painful muscular conditions.  This also prevents enough oxygen to be received in the bloodstream, leading to poor aerobic capacity and a gradual decline in cardiovascular efficiency.  As a result, this can make it difficult for your employees to perform any activity – even as simple as walking – for long periods of time.  

When the thoracic spine and rib cage become restricted, one of the most common compensation patterns that people demonstrate is elevating their shoulders and chest –using the muscles around the neck.  But, instead, you should isolate your diaphragm to allow as much space as possible within the thoracic cavity without using the muscles attached to your neck, chest, and shoulders.

Now, let’s improve your breathing efficiency by learning to breathe with your diaphragm. 

Start by lying on your back, or in a sitting position.  Put one hand on your stomach and one hand on your chest.  Now, take a deep breath….Belly should rise.

Which hand is moving toward the ceiling?  If only the hand on your stomach rises, good job!   If the hand on your chest rises toward the ceiling that means you are using your neck and chest muscles to breathe, which will increase tension in these muscles.  Now, take another breath.  This time, focus on keeping the hand on your chest completely still and only allow the hand on your stomach to rise.  With every inhale, your stomach should round out, and with each exhale it should flatten back out.

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