Are you a chest or belly breather? (. . . and why it matters!)

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Take a deep breath in. Now let it out. You may notice a difference in how you feel already.

Breathing is a powerful tool to decrease stress, increase energy, and feel more balanced in mind and body. However, most of us don’t think much about how we breathe.

Breathing is the only bodily function that we do both voluntarily and involuntarily.  When we consciously breathe we influence the involuntary part of the nervous system that regulates blood pressure, heart rate, circulation, and digestion.  In this way, we can use breathing to improve our overall health – both physical and mental.

To really get all the wonderful benefits, how we breathe is very important. When we take in a breath we either expand at the chest or through the stomach.

Stop – Take a deep breath with one hand on your chest and the other just below your rib cage.  Which hand raises more as you inhale and lowers and you exhale?

Chest Breathing

Many people are in the habit of breathing only with their chest.  Restrictive clothing, poor posture, stress, and weak breathing muscles contribute to this.

The problem is, chest breathing is inefficient. The greatest amount of blood flow occurs in the lower lobes of the lungs and the air just doesn’t get there when you breathe this way.  These breaths are generally rapid and shallow resulting in less oxygen transfer to the blood and poor delivery of nutrients to the bodies tissues.

 Belly Breathing

Also known as abdominal breathing or diaphragmatic breathing, belly breathing is deeper and causes your stomach to expand as you inhale.

The diaphragm is a large muscle separating your chest and abdomen.  When it fills with air, it contracts and is forced downward causing the abdomen to expand.  This causes a negative pressure within the chest forcing air into all lobes of the lungs.  And you have four lobes for a reason – so let’s use them all!

The benefits of belly breathing include:

  • Improved blood return to the heart for ideal blood pressure and cardiovascular health
  • Improved stamina for energy and athletic performance
  • Improved flow of lymph resulting in a better immune function
  • Improved relaxation response for less tension and overall sense of well being

The problem is, our general state of stress and slumped postures keep our chest muscles and tissues of our rib cage tight.  In this case, we can’t expand our rib cage wide to fill up our diaphragm with air.  A shallow expansion of the chest upward is the only direction it can move and the result is inefficient breathing.

For others of us (especially women), we have spent so many years holding our stomach in tight that we don’t allow our breath to fill our bellies and expand. Or our tight jeans just don’t allow it. In this case, chest breathing has become a habit.

Either way, there is good news. Similar to strengthening your arms with bicep curls, you can train the body to improve its breathing technique.

With regular practice, you will breathe more often from your abdomen.  As your conscious habits change, this will also carry over into your unconscious and you will begin to breathe from your belly even when you are sleeping.

In conclusion, let me remind you that how you breathe really does matter.  In fact, learning proper breathing techniques could be one of the most beneficial things that you can do for your health, happiness, and longevity.

If you need more guidance on stretching out tight chest muscles, better posture for breathing, or other techniques on how to use breath to your health advantage – request a call from a doctor of physical therapy.

We are experts at both the musculoskeletal (muscles and bone) and cardiopulmonary (heart and lung) systems as they relate to your overall health and function.  Click the button below for a Free 20 minute chat to get your questions answered.