Breathing is a non-negotiable part of life. As human beings, we need oxygen to survive, and luckily we were born with the ability to breathe without thinking about it. However, because of many different factors in life, we develop poor breathing techniques that we aren’t even aware of which hinder our performance and ability to recover from working out, and even more importantly, to deal with the stressors of life. Here is a brief overview of the importance of breathing, and how we can learn to breathe properly to optimize performance and life.
The Human System
The human body is made up of multiple systems that have to work in conjunction together to optimize health. The cornerstone of the human system is the respiratory system, which utilizes oxygen to feed the body so that our entire body is being fueled by the all-important oxygen. The human system is an integrated look at all of the subsystems that make up the body. If humans were a machine, it would be easy to isolate each system individually to better that system. However, our body is not a machine, and all of these subsystems work together to make up the entire human system.
The Downfall of Poor Breathing
Since breathing isn’t something that we think about, it is an action that can easily form into poor mechanics. When you don’t breathe properly, it affects every system in our body. If you are breathing poorly, every system in our body will result in being out of whack. Every muscle in your body requires oxygen to work. If you deprive your muscles from oxygen, they will not function properly. Improper breathing results in less than optimal movement and recovery. Just breathing alone will not ensure proper oxidation of your muscles. Think of it in terms of lifting a weight. You can lift a weight and get it to move, but unless you are moving it with intent, then you aren’t optimally utilizing that exercise. The same holds true for your breathing. To dig even deeper, we need to look past how oxygen affects the muscles, but how it affects the nervous system. If the nervous system is chronically in a state of stress and fatigue, you are putting yourself in a position to not be able to recover, regardless of how good your exercise routine is.
A Brief Overview of the Nervous System
The nervous system is broken down into two divisions. The sympathetic system- “fight or flight” and the parasympathetic system- “rest and recover.” The sympathetic system increases heart rate, raises blood pressure, diverts blood flow to working muscles, releases sugars and fats into the bloodstream, inhibits digestion, and reduces appetite. The parasympathetic system slows heart rate, decreases blood pressure, promotes energy storage, stimulates digestion, and increases appetite. Both of these systems work in conjunction together to balance our human system. Improper breathing will sway the balance, causing our body to be out of whack. If we breathe improperly, we run the risk of staying in a sympathetic state longer than desired, or even worse, staying in a sympathetic state for the majority of our day.
How to Breathe Properly
Breathing properly starts with what we are using to breathe. We have all been taught to breathe in through the nose, and out through the mouth. However, is this actually true? If we look at our anatomy, our nose is structured to filter air. Incoming air is filtered through the nose hairs before reaching your lungs. When we exhale, our bodies are structured to push the outgoing air back through our nose as a way to filter clean air back out as it leaves our body. Our mouth isn’t meant to be a part of the process. Our mouths are designed for two purposes, for ingestion of food and water, and for communication. When we start using our mouths to breathe, we start to use muscles that aren’t meant for breathing. Can we get away with using these muscles to breathe for survival? Yes. However, when we are talking about optimizing our workouts and life, we should focus on allowing the proper muscles to do their job. Remember, everything is connected, so if we are not using the proper muscles and system to breathe, we will be putting our body in a state of stress which will take away from other systems working efficiently. When we breathe, we want to take deep breathes through our nose, contracting and using the diaphragm muscles as the main source. If we start to use our mouths to breathe, we recruit other muscles to do the job of our diaphragm.
One of the best breathing exercises that we can do is called deep diaphragmatic breathing. This exercise is performed by lying flat on your back, placing one hand on your chest and one hand on your stomach. Taking a slow, deep breath through your nose, you want to feel your stomach rise and not your chest and shoulders. Take a deep breath in using a four-second count, hold for two seconds, and exhale through the nose at a four-second count. Give this exercise a try on a daily basis, and start to reteach your body and mind on how to breathe properly.