Breathe Better for Better Health

By Jim Mulroy, PT, MPT
AZOPT Glendale Physical Therapist

The average person breathes 21,000 times a day, 12-20 times per minute, and ventilates 6-10 liters of air per minute.  The primary breathing muscle in our body is the diaphragm.

Good diaphragmatic breathing uses less secondary breathing muscles which lessen the chance of developing neck, head, and shoulder pain. Further, your ability to exchange oxygen to the body during exercise, recovery, and at rest will improve. It also improves the alignment of your postural muscles, thus improving your posture. You can utilize good diaphragmatic breathing to decompress your spine and improve your core strength!

Conversely, when your diaphragm “flattens out” or becomes dysfunctional, you can become an inefficient breather and overload your accessory breathing muscles.  This inefficiency over time can lead to “chest breathing” where neck muscles become hypertonic (tight) and can produce various degrees of neck pain.  You may also become a “belly breather” –this is when your abdomen is no longer synchronized with your rib cage leading to further inefficiency and hyperinflation.

The diaphragm is optimized to function best when it is in a domed position, apposing the inner chest wall and ribs.  This is what Ron Hruska at the Postural Restoration Institute calls the “ZOA” (zone of apposition). So how do you activate your diaphragm to maximize the domed position and optimize you efficiency?

Here is one approach to help get you started:

Sit in a chair with your feet on the ground and your knees level or above your hips. Place your hands on a table in front of you and round your back.  Take a deep breath through your nose and let your ribs rise and then exhale slowly through your mouth as you slowly try to push out all of the air in your lungs.  You can perform a “haaaaa” or sigh as you exhale.  You want to think of the exhale as the beginning of the breathing cycle and you want to be in a “state of exhalation.” Perform 4-5 breaths this way and take a break. Repeat this for 4-5 sets.  Try to pause for 2-3 seconds after you exhale.

When you breathe out fully, you engage the exhalation muscles better (internal intercostals, oblique, transverse abdominus, and the diaphragm).  The pause at the end of your exhalation enables the diaphragm to maximize its domed position and become a much more efficient breathing muscle.  You are effectively training your neuromuscular system (motor memory) to better activate and efficiently use your diaphragm.

Practice this, and comment below if you see a difference in any neck, head or shoulder pain.

Keep watch for the next article in this series which will focus on how diaphragmatic breathing can decompress your spine, align your postural muscles, and create more structural balance in your body.