The Rochester Democrat and Chronicle newspaper published this blog i wrote in the Healthy Living Section of the paper on July 9, 2017)
Probably the only time you think about your breath is when you’re running out of it.
Breathing is, of course, fundamental, yet few of us know how to do it properly or consider how doing it the wrong way can affect our health.
All it takes is too much sitting, and our posture forces our breathing to become shallow, from the chest instead of the belly and diaphragm. And the problem is, the effects linger.
When people sit for hours, their muscles tighten. So when they eventually have to start running around to take care of tasks and chores, their tight muscles tend to make them hold their breath during exertion when they should be doing the opposite.
Throw in a lot of everyday stress — which also leads to shallow breathing — and you’ve got the recipe for high anxiety and problems such as excessive fatigue, headaches, neck and back problems, rotator cuff issues, and elbow and wrist tendonitis.
The problem is compounded when people exercise. The average weekend warrior or fitness enthusiast wants to push hard, so it’s all about keeping up and going faster or lifting more. They might feel pumped up after, but most people use quick, shallow breaths while exerting themselves, tightening up along the way.
That might make them feel strong, but they’re actually shortening their muscles as they deprive them of oxygen. Try tightening every muscle in your body and then take a breath. Was it hard to breathe?
Some of the oldest forms of exercise start with good breathing, and some of the newest fads in exercise don’t even consider it.
Today, most people think if they’re winded from a workout, all is good.
But most people’s breathing is too shallow in general. We raise our shoulders, pull in our diaphragm, and take a sip of breath that fills only the top portion of our lungs.
When you take a breath in properly, your diaphragm, stomach and rib cage — not the pectoral (chest) area — should expand.
Have you ever watched babies breathe? Their stomachs rise and their rib cages fully expand with each breath. Watch and learn: They're doing it right. They don’t need to be taught. And they haven’t spent years falling into bad habits that restrict good breathing.
Proper breathing can:
Think about it: Breathing better can, in general, change a person’s perspective almost immediately. For the same reason it’s hard to be miserable when you’re smiling, it’s difficult to feel stressed when you stop for a moment to purposefully take full, proper, rejuvenating, relaxing breaths.
When clients start personal training with me, breathing is one of the first things we address because of the impact it can have on a person’s movement and muscles. I see it as my first responsibility to start with health — not necessarily performance — until people get the proper way of breathing under control.
Learning how to breathe from the belly when exercising also helps keep their mind open and focused on muscle movement and the task at hand, making exercise more effective.
In the end, breathing correctly is widely overlooked, yet incredibly easy. It doesn’t cost anything to do, and anyone can start improving immediately. That in itself should help people breathe easier.
Breathing techniques for better exercise
These exercises and techniques will help you identify your own breathing patterns and become more conscious of your breath. Taking just a few minutes each day to do one or more of them will train your brain to correctly breathe on a regular basis. You should start to feel the benefits immediately.
Note: Close your eyes while doing each of these techniques so you can focus exclusively on the movement. Inhale and exhale fully and for the same amount of time, about two seconds for each, or whatever feels comfortable. Continue for at at least five minutes.
You should feel your ribs expand as you breathe: There is a belt of muscles under the diaphragm, and that’s what's bringing the breath in and out. So concentrate on this area to expand your breathing capacity: It will help give you a longer stream of breath. Concentrate on your breathing as you keep it steady.
Lie on your back, with your knees bent and feet close to your butt. Bend your elbows and rest them on the floor, and place your hands on your belly button. With eyes closed, breathe in through your nose and feel your stomach rise on the inhale. Then blow out of your mouth and sense your belly falling on the exhale.
If you are unfamiliar with this kind of breathing, monitor yourself carefully. Otherwise, you might switch to raising your belly while exhaling and sucking it in while inhaling — the typical chest-breathing way.
Testimonials: Breathing for better exercise
Two people share their experiences with learning to incorporate focused breathing into their exercise routine at Dynamic Functional Fitness in Brighton.
By Lisa Ryan
I wanted a good workout and was annoyed at having to slow down and breathe while resting or doing simple movements. In fact, I even worked out elsewhere to get some “real exercise.” That way, I could avoid the monotony of “learning to breath!”
I can’t recall how far along we were in the breathing program, but following one session, I noticed I was actually sore and getting fit without a whole lot of effort. It was amazing. I also noticed that I was walking at a slower pace and feeling more calm in my daily life.
The exercises have now changed my mental focus. I am constantly aware of my breathing while running or biking. I used to take my mind off of exercise when it got tough, where now I breathe through it rhythmically, which makes it easier to push through.
The exercises are calming. They stretch and strengthen muscles that need to be woken up.
I am now aware that much of my athleticism was due to momentum. Breathing, slowing down, and shortening the movements according to where your body is guiding you makes a great deal of sense to me now.
I never used to think about my breathing, but when I have any muscle pain, including in my back, I focus on deep breathing and it seems to ease the pain.
Lisa Ryan lives in Brighton.
By Mary Lane
I have done exercises and yoga my whole adult life, and proper breathing is always mentioned, so I figured it must be a big deal. But I have not actually felt the benefit of doing it until now, concentrating so hard on specific areas, as Carol has us do.
But before this personal coaching, I did indeed give the breathing only lip service. I have arthritis and feet and knee issues. I take meds, but less than I did a year ago. I used to prefer to rest to avoid stressing sore joints, but I did try to keep up cardio, knowing movement helps. But then I would be done-in by noon.
My results with Carol have been so profound that now I am motivated to continue regular exercises most days, maybe five out of seven. I used to let my mind wander to my next task once my exercise is done, but not anymore. I am 100 percent focused during the routine or I know I won't get the results.
Doing the breathing exercises has helped my posture — I am more relaxed and move more easily. I am learning to relax doing this and other daily activities. I am less reactionary and more confident. I do this program so often and intensely, there aren’t many things I do without counting “one-two-three-four” and switch from right hand to left hand or right foot to left foot. Breathing from the belly still takes concentration, but if I grip something strongly, like the pool vac I did today, I will automatically breathe properly.
Even my friends who see me often comment about how good I look. Believe me, I am no thinner or younger than a year ago! But I feel a ton better.
Mary Lane lives in Brighton.