While most of us know how to breathe to survive, we rarely learn how to breathe to thrive. Many of us take breathing for granted because it’s an autonomic function of our body. Without some conscious effort in practicing how we breathe, many times we can develop inefficient breathing habits. This can result in limited oxygen making it to required body tissues, put our posture out of whack, and significantly affect our mental health. Subsequently, learning to breathe properly can actually lower stress, clear the mind and optimize our physical and mental health.
How to Tell If You Breathe Properly
Let’s start by understanding how we typically breathe. Put one hand on your chest and the other hand on your stomach and breathe as you normally would. Which hand do you notice is moving? Now take in a big deep breathe and notice again what hand was moving. If you said the one on your chest, then we have some work to do. When you breathe from your chest, you can’t actually take in a full breath, robbing yourself of much needed oxygen. You want the hand on your stomach to be the one moving.
How to Breathe Properly
What you want to do is use your diaphragm (the muscle located below your lungs) to stretch your lungs as much as possible, allowing the oxygen to flow through and saturate your blood to be shipped off and delivered to the rest of the body. To do this, put a hand back on your chest and the other back on your stomach. This time however, when you take in a breath allow your stomach to pop out like your pregnant rather than lifting the chest. This is how you activate the diaphragm to begin to inhale more efficiently. Don’t worry, this isn’t how you’re going to always look when you breathe, we’re just getting started.
Should I Pop My Belly Out When I Breathe?
Diaphragmatic breathing is the most optimal form of breathing, and yes this is typically done by “breathing from the stomach”. However, this doesn’t mean we should walk around with a potbelly all day. Doing so will likely result in having a really weak core and probably low back pain, especially if you’re lifting weights! What you want to do is breathe through the stomach, but while still activating your core in some capacity. If you try activating your core now, you’ll probably notice that it’s difficult to take in a full breathe. So the trick here is to find the happy medium depending on what you are doing in that moment.
If you are going for a walk or sitting down, you don’t need to maximally engage your core; you just need to engage it enough to keep your spine in a good position. On the other hand, if you’re squatting 225lbs, you’ll want to activate every muscle fiber in your core to keep your spine safe from those external forces. This comes down to practice and understanding your body. I’d recommend making it a habit to practice playing around with engaging your core and diaphragmatic breathing at the same time (your abs will thank you soon enough too).
You’ll notice that to take in a full breathe your chest may begin to raise a little as well, that is also fine. Your ribs should move in small amounts to open the thoracic cavity (chest area), however not to the point that your shoulders are raising or you have a huge barrel chest. The “stomach breathing” is really the starting point of the breath and a great cue to ensure you are breathing in proper form.
Should I Breathe Through My Nose or My Mouth?
You should always try to breathe through the nose as nasal breathing has many benefits compared to mouth breathing. The nose acts as a filtration and heating system for the air that you breathe in, preventing bacteria and particles from entering your lungs. Nasal breathing also triggers the nervous system to relax and improves oxygen extraction into the lungs. If you’re exercising and have significantly increased your heart rate/breathing rate, exhaling through the mouth can help to remove carbon dioxide faster, however at the expense of less oxygen extracted. Keep the mouth shut and focus on breathing through the nose!
How Long Should I Inhale and Exhale For?
When breathing subconsciously (which is most of the time we breathe), we typically have constant, short, inhalations followed by a similar exhalation. When we become stressed or overwhelmed throughout the day, the breath becomes even shorter and usually quicker. Unfortunately, at this same time our posture tends to pull forward in the shoulders and chest area, affecting the lungs ability to expand and restraining us from removing some carbon dioxide and taking in more oxygen.
You want to try and take longer and slower inhalations as well as exhalations as much as possible throughout the day. The exact timeframe really doesn’t matter; any mindful practice of breathing is going to offer great benefits. I like to experiment, however I most commonly use these 2 different timeframes:
- Inhale slowly and count to 6, exhale slowly and count to 6.
- Box Breathing: Inhale for 4 seconds, hold for 4 seconds, exhale for 4 seconds, hold for 4 seconds
*I find this one is great to get your mind off whatever it is that you’re thinking of and really focus it on your breathing
Breathing slower will allow for more oxygen uptake, lower blood pressure and heart rate, and relax your nervous system and your mind. For more types of breathing check out this podcast: Meditation & Mindfulness with Mariana Orkenyi – The HealthSimple Show
Putting It All Together – Step by Step Guide to Breathing Properly:
- Set yourself in a good posture (shoulder back, chest out)
- Inhale slowly through the nose
- Using the diaphragm, breathe into the stomach rather than the chest, to allow for a full stretch of the lungs.
- Engage the core lightly, to stop the belly from popping out too much.
- Exhale slowly through the nose
And there you have it! Breathing properly is such a simple and free way to improve your physical and mental health. You can utilize this knowledge and practice this at anytime and anywhere. I’d recommend mindfully breathing as much as possible throughout the day and I guarantee you will see immediate benefits!