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Proper Breathing: How You Might be Doing it Wrong

Proper Breathing: How You Might be Doing it Wrong

Breathing might sound pretty straightforward, but did you know there’s such a thing as proper breathing? The technical term is “diaphragmatic breathing,” more commonly known as “belly breathing.”

You probably don’t really think about breathing very much. It’s a subconscious process that just kind of… happens. It should be effortless, steady, and relaxing at times. If taking a deep breath is difficult or uncomfortable for you, you’re probably making a pretty common mistake. To diagnose it, let’s first take a basic look at the respiratory system and what keeps it going.

How Breathing Works

There are three things working together to make it possible for you to draw breathe: the lungs, the diaphragm, and the intercostal muscles. 

When you breathe in, your diaphragm contracts downwards towards your belly. That allows your lungs to expand and take in oxygen since there’s more room in the chest cavity. The intercostal muscles, which run in between your ribs, help the chest cavity expand.

To breathe out, the diaphragm relaxes back to its original state, causing the lungs and chest cavity to contract and expel carbon dioxide. You can see the whole process in the diagram below.

Diagram showing the proper breathing process

If your breathing is shallow, you’re not getting oxygen all the way down into the bottom part of the lungs, which is where many of the small blood vessels that deliver oxygen to your cells live. That’s why breathing deeply can help slow your heart rate and stabilize your blood pressure.

Proper Breathing

Stop and take a deep breath. Do your shoulders go upwards and elongate your body as you inhale? Then, when you exhale, do the shoulders come back down and contract your chest?

If you answered yes, you’re doing it wrong.

That’s called vertical breathing. While it might feel like you’re really opening up those lungs, you’re only getting air into the top of them.

The correct way to breathe is called belly breathing, or horizontal breathing.

What you do is inhale using your belly. Your belly should come outward as you take in air, and you’ll feel your lungs opening up. This draws oxygen all the way down into the bottom of your lungs. As you exhale, your stomach will come back in, and your rib cage will contract. This uses the diaphragm muscle to make sure you get the optimal amount of air.

How You Got Off Track

If you’re now learning you’ve been breathing incorrectly, you might be wondering how it happened. After all, breathing is a subconscious process. It’s just something your body does automatically, so how did it start breathing the wrong way?

Here are a few possibilities:

  • Stress – Life moves fast in this day and age. With the fast pace of society and constantly being connected via social media and television, the stress levels can go up fast. Being stressed leads to taking shorter breaths.
  • Poor posture – You sit at a desk all day for years through grade school. You do some more desk sitting for some more years in college. Then you get a job and sit at a desk all day until you retire. All that sitting leads to slouching in your chair as you hack away at the keyboard. That hunched over posture collapses your rib cage a little bit, which means your lungs can’t fill up all the way when you inhale.
  • Obesity – When you have more fat, there’s more tissue that’s pushing on your chest and diaphragm. That makes it more difficult for the lungs to fill completely while breathing, so you’re getting shorter breaths than you need.
  • Air pollution – If you live somewhere that’s very smoggy, your body may be naturally inclined to not breathe in the polluted air. That causes you to subconsciously take shorter breaths so you don’t breathe in the harmful air.

Breathing Exercises

No matter what the cause of your breathing pattern, there are a couple of simple exercises that can help get you back into breathing best practices.

The first option is called pursed-lip breathing. For this exercise, you’ll need to sit down and relax your shoulders and neck. Then, slowly breathe in through your nose for two seconds. After you’ve counted to two, purse your lips like you’re going to whistle and slowly breathe out for four seconds. Once you’ve finished, repeat those steps over and over again. This slow and controlled method will help you relax and see how a correct breath should feel.

Your second method is known as the book breathing exercise. To try this one, lay on the ground and place a few light books on your stomach. You can just put both of your hands there if instead of books if you prefer. Now take a slow, deep breath in through your nose, feeling your stomach push the books (or your hands) upwards. Now slowly breathe out through your mouth, taking about twice as long as you took to inhale. 

Repeat that for five to 10 minutes. If you notice the books or your hands aren’t rising as you inhale, that’s your cue to remember to do your belly breathing instead of vertical breathing.

Senior woman breathing deeply during a workout

Take a Deep Breath

It might take a while to train your body to breathe properly again. Take some time every day to do one of those exercises or just slow down and focus on how you’re breathing. Some people will start to notice the effects of optimal breathing pretty soon. Others will take some time and gradually start to feel the difference.

So how will you know if it’s working? You’ll probably notice an increase in your energy levels, decreased stress, and an increase in your focus ability, a brighter mood, and even find your neck pain or headaches have stopped. With so much upside, there’s no reason to not give it shot.