Did you know that the average person takes approximately 17,000-30,000 breaths a day? For most of us it’s not something that we really think about… our bodies just do it naturally. So why is it so important?
The importance of breath control for our overall health and wellbeing
You’re probably fully aware that if we don’t breathe our bodies would simply starve of oxygen… but is there anything more to it than that?
Earlier this year during Mental Health Awareness week, this Sports Massage and Remedial Therapist thought it was time that she took a slice of her own advice and started paying more attention to breathing. Often, during sports massage and deep tissue massage treatments, I encourage my clients to focus on their breath. This is with the aim of helping them to relax during their massage, but there are a number of factors to consider in breathing, and in particular the benefits of controlled, dynamic breathing on our overall health and wellbeing.
So, let’s start at the beginning. Because let’s face it: how many of us actually know how our body breathes?
How our body breathes
The human torso consists of two cavities; the thoracic and the abdominal. The thoracic cavity sits on top, its walls are your ribcage which houses the heart and lungs. The abdominal cavity sits underneath and is home to many vital organs such as the stomach, liver, small and large intestines, kidneys and bladder to name a few. Both are anchored to the spine and are separated by a shared domed shaped muscle – the diaphragm.
Now before we go any further it’s important to note that the thoracic and abdominal cavities are structurally very different. Think of the thoracic cavity as an accordion sat on top of a water balloon – the abdominal cavity. This may be a strange and difficult image to visualise, but what’s really important to remember is that both cavities have the capacity to move, which is fundamentally important.
So an accordion, sat on top of a water balloon, separated by the diaphragm, a domed shaped muscle. Right…
When you inhale air travels through your nose or your mouth down your respiratory tract, through the trachea and into your lungs. Deep inside the lungs, passed the primary bronchi, smaller bronchi and bronchioles, are tiny air sacs called alveoli, which are encased in capillaries (blood vessels).
It is here that oxygen is traded for carbon dioxide in a process called gas exchange. As you exhale, the carbon dioxide leaves your body, via the bronchioles, bronchi and trachea, and the whole process starts again.
Volume and pressure
The diaphragm is the main muscle for respiration and it acts as the floor of the thoracic cavity and the roof of the abdominal cavity. Remember how I mentioned at the beginning that the thoracic cavity is encased by the ribs? Well, the rib cage is a pretty solid structure, but believe it or not it has the capacity to move in three directions: anterior/posterior (front/back), laterally (sideways) and superiorly (upwards).
When the diaphragm contracts and flattens it changes the pressure inside the thoracic cavity (remember that accordion!). As the thoracic cavity expands in volume, the pressure inside the lungs is less than the atmosphere outside the body, which causes the air outside the body to move into the lungs.
The contraction and flattening of the diaphragm also pushes down on the abdominal cavity, which also changes shape to accommodate this movement (remember the water balloon analogy?). Press your belly; do you notice how it bulges in another area? Much like a water balloon, the abdominal cavity is non-compressible. If you squeeze one region it causes a bulge in another. You may even notice as you read this that your abdominal area expands a little as you inhale, and depresses on the exhale. During exhalation the diaphragm relaxes and moves upward, the lungs passively recoil and the volume of thoracic cavity decreases and everything returns to its original shape.
The importance of controlled, dynamic breathing for stress and anxiety
Imagine a perfect world. Pretty nice, right? Imagine you didn’t have to sit down for 6-8 hours a day. Imagine you could move freely and easily…much like the popular song by John Lennon, imagining is easy; doing is sometimes harder.
As highlighted earlier on in this article, the thoracic cavity can expand in a three-dimensional way and the main muscle to initiate this movement is the diaphragm. However, due to multiple reasons such as posture or emotional and physical trauma, few people actually breathe in the same way or even three dimensionally. Have you ever found yourself clenching your jaw? Tense? Short of breath? Your stomach constantly tied in knots? Your throat constricted? Your mind constantly racing? This could be a sign of stress or anxiety, and no two people experience it in the same way.
It’s true that you may have similar symptoms to someone else, but everyone is different and our life experience is something that is completely unique to us. Therefore, we tend to develop our own individual coping mechanisms and strategies to deal with stress and sometimes this can affect the way we breathe. There have been several studies over the years on how slow breathing exercises and meditation can help to improve symptoms of stress, anxiety, depression and even chronic pain. There are a number of resources out there designed to give guidance on exercises to help develop good habits. We’ll be publishing our top tips for controlled breathing soon, so keep an eye on our blog to find out more…
The importance of controlled, dynamic breathing for sports performance
Controlled, dynamic breathing is hugely important for sports performance. Not only will it help ease performance nerves, it will help regulate your heart rate and improve circulation.
Controlled breathing is not the first thing we think about when we take up a new sport or activity, but believe it or not it is vital in order for us to achieve peak performance and maintain healthy activity. A common trap is to fall into shallow breathing – this can be extremely negative. Not only will it have the potential to make your performance erratic and uncontrolled, it can have a huge knock on effect and lead to a number of negative health issues.
Controlled, dynamic breathing is vitally important for your physical and emotional wellbeing. If you find yourself suffering from reduced sports performance or work-related stress or anxiety, contact us today and find out how sports massage and remedial therapy can help you.