The Ins and Outs of Breathing

Breathing. It's something we're always doing. We rarely, if ever, even think about it. What if I told you that we’re getting it all mixed up?

Try this out to see what I mean:

Take a breath in. Now breathe out. Are your shoulders going up with the breath in and down with the breath out? Does your stomach stay still? That's the breathing that most people do on a daily basis, called vertical breathing or shallow breathing.

To get a better idea of how breathing should be, try this:

Sit up tall, shoulders back. Breathe in for 4 seconds. Hold for 4 seconds. Exhale 4 seconds. Hold for 4 seconds. Repeat for as long as you want. Use the GIF below if you need a visualization


Do you feel your stomach expand and contract with the breath? That's the breath fully filling your lungs. This is the breathing we did as babies/ toddlers and, as long as there are no specific issues, this is how we breathe when we sleep. So, if this is the way the body is supposed to work, why don't we breathe like that all the time?

Well, it started with going to school.

Compare how much a toddler moves during the day to how much a kindergarten or 1st grader is able to move. Depending on the system, they may have one recess and/or one P.E. class a day compared to the amount of time sitting to do work. The amount of time sitting only increases as they move up in grade levels and into the work force. That acted of sitting hunched over a book, a computer, or a piece of paper messes with so many muscles that you probably had to think about sitting tall during the second exercise and more than likely didn't maintain it into reading this paragraph. Poor posture makes it difficult for the diaphragm to do its job, which reduces your lung capacity. 

Posture is not the only thing that changes as we get older. Our stress levels and weight tend to increase as we get older.

One way to look at how stress affects the way we breathe is to look at the extreme example: a panic attack. During a panic attack, it’s hard to focus on one thing and the breaths become rapid and shallow. The lungs are unable to fulfill their purpose, so, even with the rapid breathing, you feel breathless. Though we are not all going through a panic attack every day, the amount of daily stress does show up in how we breathe. Between posture, stress, and the last component, it’s not really a wonder that we breathe so shallow.

The last component I want to talk about today is weight. Excess weight puts stress on the whole body. When it’s located on the abdomen, it actually has the potential to create a vicious cycle: the increase weight limits the functionality of the muscles involved with breathing, which makes moving around harder, so you move less, which increases the weight and decreases lung function.

While there are other potential causes to decreased lung function, including genetics and long-term illnesses, I want to focus on the things that you can control in your daily life. Because it is possible to fix your breathing by breathing. Regularly practicing breathing exercise like what you did at the beginning, becoming aware of how you react to stress and shifting it through meditation and moving more to get to a healthy weight for your body are all ways to improve your lung function and create a positive effect on the rest of your body.

Posted in Lifestyle