Breathing is the single most important action we take all day.
You breathe, on average, over 20,000 times a day. Breathing well vs breathing poorly quickly adds up.
Yet how much of the fitness advice is focused on fixing this crucial and constant action?
Answer: Very little.
Breathing gets taken for granted.
Breathing well is also crucial for regulating stress and maintaining a healthy immune system.
Now you’re hopefully seeing why I’ve written a whole article about it and at least a little bit curious.
Let’s dive in and learn more!
There are two types of breathing.
Breathing done by the primary muscles of respiration: the diaphragm and intercostals, is called diaphragmatic breathing.
This breathing is commonly referred to as belly-breathing, where you push out your “belly” to breathe in and suck in your belly to breathe out.
Breathing done by the secondary muscles of respiration: neck and shoulder muscles, is considered shallow breathing.
In shallow breathing, most of the movement comes from lifting your chest and shoulders. It’s called shallow because this breathing pattern often doesn’t activate the diaphragm to fully inflate your lungs.
Diaphragmatic breathing, or belly breathing has two main benefits:
First, when your diaphragm contracts to bring air into your lungs it pushes down on your digestive system and internal organs such as your liver, kidney, pancreas. This compression is crucial for maintaining healthy digestion and metabolism. (See picture below)
Second, breathing with your diaphragm stimulates relaxation in the body by activating your parasympathetic nervous system, aka the rest and digest system.
The ideal breathing ratio: 80% belly 20% shallow
The average breathing ratio: 20% belly 80% shallow
Too much shallow breathing and not enough belly breathing can cause:
- Digestive issues
- Increased stress levels
- Chronic tightness of the neck and shoulders from overusing neck and shoulder muscles during shallow breathing.
There is also the domino effect of too much shallow breathing that is crucial to understand.
When you shallow breathe more than you belly breathe you take away the compression decreasing the amount of blood flow and general circulation in your internal organs and digestive system.
And studies have shown that around 80% of your immmune system exists in your digestive system.
When your digestive system isn’t healthy, your immune system isn’t healthy.
We also know that belly-breathing, specifically when you inhale through your nose, stimulates relaxation and the “rest and digest” process in your body.
When you consistently shallow breathe, you lose this relaxation method and stress levels rise.
Studies have shown that increased stress depresses your immune system making it harder to fight of infections.
Bottom line: If you want a healthy immune system, you need to breathe well.
How can you fix this?
Take time out of your day to practice correct breathing.
Whether you are new to breathwork, or simply want to brush-up, the best place to start is simply practicing belly breathing.
Belly Breathing Protocol:
Start seated or lying down on your back, whichever is more comfortable.
Place one hand on your belly (right over your belly button) and one hand on your chest.
Now remember, the diaphragm is supposed to do 80% of the work and your neck and shoulder muscles 20%.
Begin breathing nice and slow trying to push out against the hand over your belly-button for the first 80% of the breath (you can just ball-park it and shoot for MOST of the breath).
For the last bit of your inhale (approximately 20%) allow your chest and shoulders to rise.
As you breathe out, begin by pulling your belly-button towards your spine until there is no longer any air left to push out.
Repeat for at least 8-10 breaths, or more if it feels good.
The focus is on slow and controlled breathing, begining your inhale and exhale with diaphragm.
A more advanced breathing technique is the 4-7-8 method.
The 4-7-8 protocol:
Begin by finding a comfortable position, seated or lying down on your back.
Quietly inhale through the nose, breathing from your belly for a count of 4.
Hold your breath for a count of 7.
And exhale through your mouth, making a whooshing sound, for a count of 8.
Repeat this cycle at least three more times.
If you’re struggling with the counting and belly-breathing, there are countless breathwork apps that come with timers to help you get started with something like the 4-7-8 protocol.
If you’re more of a visual learner, check out this video taking you through the breathing exercise explained above.
To take a deeper dive into the world of breathing techniques and the science behind it, check out Ben Greenfield’s comprehensive guide to breathwork.
Conclusion: How does this feel?
Is it harder or easier than you thought? How do you feel after trying it?
Let me know in the comments below!
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