“Exhale.” If you’re my patient, I’m sure you’ve heard me say this simple word numerous times, and for good reason: it’s important!
We average around 25,000 breaths per day, even more with exercise. Breathing acts as the mechanism to drive oxygen into our body so we can function and thrive. Given its significance, shouldn’t we pay a little more attention to the way we breathe?
We can’t talk about breathing without discussing the autonomic nervous system. The autonomic nervous system functions to control our automatic responses like breathing, heart rate, digestion and other functions you don’t have to think about. It has two sub divisions: the parasympathic and sympathetic nervous systems.
Think of the sympathetic nervous system as your “fight or flight” response. If you’re stressed (physically or mentally), your sympathetic nervous system kicks up and acts to stiffen your muscles to prepare you for the potential stressors to come. Key point: your body responds similarly to emotional and physical stress. In relation to breathing mechanics, the stressed New Yorker can present similarly to the gym rat.
Your parasympathetic nervous system acts as your “rest and digest” response. It helps you relax your muscles and promote recovery. These two systems function along a spectrum. Issues can arise when you lose the ability to go back and forth between both ends.
In relation to breathing, exhaling helps to activate the parasympathetic nervous system. Yogis had it right when emphasizing deep breathing to relax!
When in a state of stress, your body has the tendency to remain in a state of inhalation. This extended posture can appear as flared ribs, an arched back and the tendency to use accessory muscles to take air in — typically your low back, shoulders and neck. Over time, this can start to affect how you hold yourself even when not in stress.
With an extended posture, it can be difficult to exhale fully and engage the abdominals, as certain muscles are then overused during exercise. It can manifest in different ways, but some frequent complaints with running in particular include tight low back, knee pain, IT band trouble and even Achilles issues. Not having full control over breathing and your core can affect things all the way down the chain of your legs (or up the chain, if you tend to use your arms more in exercise).
But don’t worry, you can improve this! Try this:
- Analyze your own breathing. Take the time to lie on your back and feel where air is getting in. Does one rib flare out more than the other? Do you only breathe into your belly? Do your ribs expand in all directions? Are you getting air into your upper lungs? Do you get air into the back of your lungs? If you feel a little uneven in any direction, try sending some air to places that might feel restricted.
- Think about breathing when you’re exerting yourself. Especially with cardiovascular activity, we can get caught up in getting as much air as possible in, but we frequently forget to exhale. Exhaling with exercise can engage your abdominals and help to get all your air out so you can ultimately take more air in.