How often do you think about how you are breathing? If you are like most people, unless you are having trouble taking in air, you don’t give it a whole lot of thought. It’s literally automatic — and you might think that by doing something around 20,000 times a day, you would have it down pat.
Yet most people actually breathe incorrectly. That’s right. Even though breathing is an unconscious function, we actually have more control over it than you might think. Often, bad habits, stress, or simply being unaware of our breath can cause ineffective breathing, which can contribute to serious health problems.
How We Breathe Improperly
Respiration is vital to life. The process of ventilation — inhaling and exhaling — delivers vital oxygen throughout the body, and helps ensure proper circulation. Breathing also removes harmful carbon dioxide from the body. When you do it improperly, though, you negatively affect your circulatory system and other parts of the body.
Improper breathing is generally the result of both physical and emotional factors. For example, when you’re stressed, your shoulders and neck tense up, lifting the lungs and preventing them from completely filling on each inhale. Stress can also lead to “overbreathing,” or taking in too many shallow breaths, limiting oxygen intake.
Concerns about body image also contribute to poor breathing. Most adults want to have a flat stomach — flat, tight abs are a sign of fitness and considered attractive. But to maintain a flat stomach, many people, either consciously or unconsciously, hold in their abdomens. The problem with focusing on maintaining and tightening the abdominal muscles at all times, though, is that it prevents the diaphragm, the muscle located behind the lungs, from doing its job. When we breathe in, the diaphragm tightens and flattens and compresses the abdominal cavity to allow air to enter the lungs. This should cause your belly to bulge slightly. However, when you are focused on “holding it in,” the lung are unable to expand, again, preventing oxygen from entering the body.
Of course, there are other reasons for poor breathing habits. Sinus issues, poor posture, being overweight, and improper “breath form” during exercise can all cause you to breath improperly as well.
Signs You Don’t Breathe Properly
Since most people who don’t breathe correctly are unaware of the problem, solving it requires conscious breathing, or taking time to stop and focus on your breath and correcting any issues. Fortunately, there are signs that you are not breathing correctly. These include:
- You breathe through your mouth when you don’t have sinus issues that prevent nose breathing.
- Your neck and shoulders move as you breathe.
- Your breath is noisy without any medical reason.
- Your breathing is jerky, uneven, or shallow.
- You take more than 20 breaths per minute without any identifiable cause.
- Long pauses between breaths, or unconsciously holding your breath.
Keep in mind that these signs are often similar to those of asthma or other lung diseases, so be aware of your breathing and practice conscious breathing to determine whether it is your breathing habits, or something else, that’s leading to difficulties breathing.
Consequences of Poor Breathing
To an extent, yes, the fact that you are breathing at all is what’s important. However, not breathing properly can have a wide range of negative impacts on your health and well-being. For example, not breathing effectively will limit your athletic performance, and reduce the positive effects of exercise. It can also lead to anxiety, depression, and an agitated mood, due to the reduced oxygen flow to the brain. Better breathing can also reduce pain. Because proper breathing requires you to relax our neck, shoulders, chest, and abdomen, you’ll experience less tension, and therefore less pain.
Perhaps most importantly, though, breathing properly helps improve cardiovascular health. When your chest and belly are relaxed and your lungs don’t have to work as hard to take in oxygen, then your heart does not have to work as hard to pump blood throughout your body. This helps reduce blood pressure and heart rate, two factors in the risk of heart disease.
Learning to Breathe Again
Since chances are good that you aren’t breathing right, you may need to learn to breathe again. The first step is to determine whether there is a medical issue preventing you from breathing properly; for example, allergies may be causing sinus congestion that can be treated with a medication like Nasonex to ease the flow of air through the lungs.
The next step is to practice conscious breathing and pay attention to how you are normally breathing. You might set reminders on your phone, or leave notes around where you will find them throughout the day, and do a “breath check-in” four to five times each day. Ideally, you should be breathing through your nose most of the time, and about 70-80 percent of your breaths should fully expand your diaphragm. To check this, place our hands on your abdomen, and deliberately expand your belly with every breath. In time, it will become second nature.
Focusing on breathing properly is one of the best things that you can do for your health. When you get enough fresh oxygen into your system, it won’t take long before you feel better overall.