Breathing is the first and last thing you do in life and each year you will take 8-10 million breaths. Since it happens unconsciously, driven by reflexes, it’s easy to assume that your breathing patterns are already optimal in fulfilling its main role of oxygenating your body.
But the truth is that breathing patterns can be dysfunctional, negatively effecting everything from your hormone levels and sleep quality to your dental health and physical performance.
Continue below to learn about the basics of breathing mechanics and why you should pay attention to how you breathe for your wellbeing, fitness and health.
THE ROLE OF BREATHING
Breathing, also called respiration or ventilation, is done with a primary role to move oxygen into and carbon dioxide out of the lungs. You breath about 7-8 liters of air per minute, containing 20% oxygen (at sea level) and of which you utilize about 5%. This means your take in around 450-550 liters of pure oxygen per day (all depending on body size, activity level, etc).
Breathing also has non-respiratory functions, such as creating stability around the spine, posture and motor control, speech as well as self regulation of mental and emotional states. For example, when preparing to lift something heavy, a properly braced torso (intra-abdominal pressure) is needed to protect the spine and maintain posture throughout the lift.
As mentioned, breathing mechanics can be labeled functional or dysfunctional. In a well functioning breath cycle, also called diaphragmatic breathing, your diaphragm contracts (tightens) and moves downward during inhalation and involves synchronized motion of the rib cage and abdomen. The magnitude of rib cage movement when breathing depends on the amount of oxygen inhaled and is therefore increased during physical activity and should be minimal at rest.
Dysfunctional breathing, in this context known as thoracic breathing, involves breathing from the upper chest. When this happens it’s common to see muscles in the neck being overused for breathing, such as the intercostals, scalenes and sternocleidomastoid. When these muscles are doing too much work, it’s going to create rigidity and excessive tone that will not let the rib cage or the thoracic spine move well, often causing a domino effect of problems such as headache, misaligned pelvic and ribcage position, forward head posture leading to decreased performance and wellbeing.
Dysfunctional breathing can also has a negative effect on your mental states and hormone levels. With a shallow, thoracic breath, you stimulate the sympathetic nervous system to up-regulate, causing your heart and breathing rate to speed up, and elevating stress hormones like cortisol, preparing your body to face a threat. If you aren’t in need for this type of response of the autonomous nervous system, too much time spent in this state can lead to chronic stress and disturbance of your hormone balance.
Functional breathing guides your body to properly balance the sympathetic and the parasympathetic nervous system. When the parasympathetic system is dominant, your breathing slows, your heart rate drops, your blood pressure lowers as the blood vessels relax, and your body is put into a state of calm. A good rule of thumb to put your body in a parasympathetic state is to allow the exhalation to take twice as long as the inhalation (e.g. 2 count inhale, 4 count exhale), with a one count pause at the top of the inhale and a one count pause at the bottom of the exhale. And make sure you breath with your nose in to the diaphragm.
MOUTH BREATHING VS. NASAL BREATHING
One important aspect on the topic of breathing is to be aware of the two passageways we use to bring air to our lungs - the nose and the mouth. People with healthy breathing patterns will use both the nose and the mouth to breathe, using the mouth during training and strenuous exercise to transport more oxygen to muscles faster and when having a stuffed nose from a cold or allergies.
When mouth breathing happens at rest and if it’s your preferred way of breathing when sleeping, it can cause many problems that should be addressed by your doctor or dentist. In adults it can lead to decreased physical performance and lung function, chronic muscle tension, sleep problems, lowered immune system, bad breath, gum disease, etc. For parents it’s very important to look for signs of mouth breathing in children, so the problem can be corrected before it worsens (causing crooked teeth, facial deformities, or poor growth).
When it comes to knowing if you are a mouth or nasal breather, you can simply become more aware of your preferred breathing strategy, or if you often have a dry mouth when you wake up. For a simple way to check if your nasal passageways are blocked; put a finger over one nostril and try to breathe in while keeping your mouth closed, and then try it on the other side. Any difficulty inhaling could indicate a problem and you should consult with you doctor for further examination.
In short, for your breathing pattern to be functional you need to be able to breathe through your nose. Nasal breathing allows for an environment to both relax and perform physically when needed by improving oxygen absorption in the lungs, filtering of air particles, moistening and warm up of air as well as maintaining elasticity to the lungs due to the added resistance to the air stream from inhaling via the nose.
There is currently no recognized golden standard to screen breathing and since breathing dysfunctions can be multidimensional (biomechanical, biochemical or psychophysiological) you need several strategies that measures all dimensions to effectively diagnose breathing pattern disorders (BPD).
When it comes to screening breathing, some of the most popular methods include; the Hi-Lo breathing screen, the The Nijmegen Questionnaire (NQ) as well as functional residual capacity (FRC), a breath-holding ability test.
At HAUS No3 we use the versions of the Hi-Lo breathing screen (crocodile breathing, etc) as well as the FRC test. This helps us get a better understanding and collect invaluable information of the basic breathing function in our guests.
RESOURCES ON BREATHING
Although the importance of breathing has been emphasized by cultures and activities such as Pranayama yoga and Tibetian Tummo for thousands of years, it’s not until recently that the mainstream fitness industry has caught up on its great impact on movement quality, performance and health.
Education and information is on breathing is now widespread with some of the biggest names being Wif Hof, Brian Mackenzie and Australian breathing therapist Dr. Rosalba Courtney. Best selling books on the topic of breathing include The Breathing Book, The Oxygen Advantage and The Power of Your Breath.
We highly recommend the Screening and Assessing Breathing: A Multidimensional Approach by Functional Movement Systems. This online course is a great resource designed for the fitness and healthcare professional on how to better understand, screen and re-train breathing patterns that can be applied in fitness and rehabilitation settings.
Breathing always happens no matter if you are awake or asleep and you will breathe around 800 million times in your lifetime (if you are lucky to live until 80 years). With that many repetitions of the same task it’s important to be aware of how you breathe so that you can use it to your best advantage and address potential dysfunctions or breathing pattern disorders.
Often breathing is forgotten and almost neglected when it comes to improving health, fitness and wellbeing. Perhaps due to how most people take breathing for granted, after all it is something that we do automatically without having to think about doing it. But before you try another sleep-hack to improve sleep, search for a new hamstring stretch to gain more flexible or buy the latest supplement to boost energy, start by evaluating the functionality of your breathe. The key to unlock your seemingly chronically tight muscles, sleep apnea, tension headaches, or chronically low energy levels can be as simple as learning how to reset and restore with a deep, nasal, diaphragmatic breath.
WELCOME TO HAUS No3
At HAUS No3 we like to believe that if you want to improve fitness and health, you have to start with the basics. In our quest to offer the highest quality of personal training services we leave no stone unturned and our experience tells us that how you breathe sets the foundation for health and wellbeing and where you build movement patterns, performance and fitness on top of.
Welcome to #OurHAUS
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