By Brent Moore, CSCS
When we breathe, the goal is not to get oxygen into the lungs, but rather to get oxygen to the rest of the body. Unfortunately, many people have created bad habits that can cause inefficient breathing, tension in the shoulders and neck, headaches, and back pain (PRI, n.d.). When you watch a baby breathe, take note of the expansion of the belly as the child inhales. The belly expands first, followed by the chest, and reverses on exhalation. Think about how you are breathing at this very moment. How deep are you breathing? Do you feel tension in your neck while breathing? Taking the time to focus on your breathing throughout the day can help break these bad habits and restore proper function of the diaphragm along with making you feel better.
The bottom of the lungs has a better blood supply and when the alveoli in the lower lobes are filled with oxygen, the body is able to get more oxygen to the muscles and brain (PRI, n.d.). In order to breathe deeply, you need to learn to belly breathe. When you breathe in, the diaphragm moves down increasing the volume of the thoracic cavity. This creates a negative pressure that draws airs into the lungs. The intercostal muscles in the ribcage can also help to expand the thoracic cavity, but these muscles are secondary in this action. When breathing is done incorrectly, secondary muscles in the neck, shoulders, abdomen, and ribcage attempt to take the brunt of this work often resulting in unnecessary tension and pain.
In exercise, when a person holds their breath, several things happen. When you hold your breath, you create excess tension. Take a minute and do it. Hold your breath and think about moving through an exercise. Did you tense up? In special operations dive schools and dive preparation programs, one of the first things a student has to learn is to relax while holding his breath. This does not come naturally for most people and is a study of necessity in those programs. When you tense up, you push blood to the tensed muscles, robbing oxygen from the brain. Not being able to think clearly is not conducive to proper movement in exercise. Tensing of the muscles also makes it more difficult to move in an efficient manner.
Holding your breath also decreases the amount of oxygen that you can get to your muscles. Even an extremely conditioned person only uses about 60 percent of the oxygen taken in during breathing while exercising at max capacity. When at rest, a person only uses about 30 percent of the oxygen taken in. There is only around 21 percent oxygen in the air we breathe and when a person is only using between 30 and 50 percent during exercise, that means there is not much oxygen getting to the system as one might like. Inefficiency in breathing only serves to make this inefficient use of the oxygen we take in worse. Continuous breathing during exercise can help ensure that the muscles being used have the oxygen necessary for movement.
When you perform an exercise, if you find yourself holding your breath, try to take a complete breath at both the peak and bottom of the exercise. If you are unable to do this and be relaxed through the exercise, there is a dysfunction in your movement. Either the weight you are using is too heavy, or you are holding tension in parts of your body that is unnecessary. Try to relax and breathe through your movement. In your daily life, try to take some moments to be conscious of your breathing every so often. If you can learn to breathe properly throughout your day and in exercise, you may be able to reduce neck pain, shoulder pain, and headaches. Try to breathe the way a baby does. Take a breath in while relaxed. Allow your belly to expand as you breathe in and allow it to collapse as you breathe out. Reset your habits to live and move better.
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PRI. (n.d.). PRI Breathing Techniques. Retrieved from http://www.posturalrestoration.com/resources/dyn/files/1062908zcc85c9bb/_fn/PRI_Breathing_Techniques.pdf