It often feels entirely effortless, but that doesn’t mean breathing is simple: There are about 10 pounds of muscles surrounding your lungs that help you inhale and exhale at least 17,000 times a day. Some of these muscles you’re familiar with, such as the diaphragm; others you may have never heard of, like the intercostals, located in the spaces between your ribs. They all work in synchrony to bring oxygen into your body and expel carbon dioxide. This process not only keeps you alive but also affects your digestion, blood pressure, mood, cognitive function, athletic performance, even your immunity—and experts believe that how you breathe can make a big difference in your overall health.
The majority of us have room for improvement, says Belisa Vranich, PsyD, a clinical psychologist and coauthor of Breathing for Warriors. One of the most common mistakes? Relying on auxiliary respiratory muscles to breathe instead of primary muscles. “We’re using our neck and shoulders to pick up our rib cage, rather than having our diaphragm push our ribs open,” Vranich explains.
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Each time you inhale, the diaphragm contracts and moves downward, creating space in your chest cavity for your lungs to expand; the external intercostal muscles also contract, pulling your rib cage upward and outward. When we engage our neck and shoulders, however, we’re messing with this perfectly designed system. And the effects can be far-reaching: Research has linked improper breathing to digestive disorders, low back pain, and insomnia, among other ailments.
There are plenty of explanations for our poor respiratory habits. “So many things we do in life impact how we breathe: wearing tight pants, sitting too much, chronic stress,” says breath coach Richie Bostock, author of Exhale, a guide to breath work. Stress is a major culprit. When the fight-or-flight response kicks in, your breathing becomes shallower in order to quickly get your muscles extra oxygen to fight or flee. But if you’re under pressure all day long (hello, jam-packed calendar), shallow breathing is more harmful than helpful. (As you notice your breathing quickening, try taking a series of slow, deep breaths, to signal your nervous system to calm down.)
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Another mistake we make is holding our breath, especially during intense workouts. For example, experts recommend breathing out on exertion to avoid getting a hernia or straining blood vessels. But when you’re hyperfocused on your next overhead press, it’s easy to forget to exhale.
Here’s the good news: You can learn to breathe better. We asked our experts for exercises that will help train your respiratory muscles to work the way they’re meant to. Try these moves to boost your well-being, one breath at a time.
Vranich recommends doing these exercises for 10 minutes a day to build the habit of breathing from your belly.
Engage your diaphragm
Assume the Wonder Woman pose (stand tall, chest out), but instead of putting your hands on your hips, place them on the sides of your rib cage. Spend 5 seconds breathing in a deep breath; your rib cage (and hands) should move outward, and your waist should expand forward. Then exhale for 5 seconds. Notice if your shoulders move during the breath; if so, try to take your next breath without moving them. It may help to imagine that you’re holding kettlebells that are pulling your shoulders downward.
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Fill the balloon
In a seated position, with a balloon held to your lips and the waist of your pants pulled down below your belly, take the biggest inhale you can as you straighten your posture. Then exhale into the balloon, engaging only your midsection (keep your face, neck, and shoulders relaxed); hollow out your waist, and curve asif you’re bending over a beach ball. Pinch the mouth of the balloon to seal it. Repeat. Your goal: to fill the balloon with as few breaths as possible.
Build up your core
“Abdominal exercises feed into a strong diaphragm,” says pulmonologist Michael J. Stephen, MD, author of Breath Taking: The Power, Fragility and Future of Our Extraordinary Lungs. That’s because your abs help move your diaphragm, giving you more power to empty or fill your lungs. These are two of Dr. Stephen’s favorite core-targeting moves.
Start lying facedown with your legs extended, feet hip-width apart, and your hands next to your shoulders, palms down. Contract your abs as you lift your body up in a push-up motion, forming a straight line from the back of your neck to your heels. Hold for 15 seconds. Avoid arching your lower back or hiking your hips—and don’t forget to breathe! Each time you plank, add 5 seconds.
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Lie flat on your back, and place your hands behind your head; lift your head in a 45-degree angle to the floor. Draw one knee to your abdomen; extend the other leg so your foot hovers a few inches off the ground. Hold for a count of five. Switch legs. Continue switching for one minute. Do three rounds.
To allow the thoracic cavity to fully expand, your diaphragm and intercostal muscles need to be flexible and mobile, says Bostock. The moves below will keep them that way.
Kneel on the floor, with your knees directly below your hips. Extend your left leg out straight to the left, with foot flat on the floor, toes pointing left, and kneecap pointing at the ceiling. Reach your right arm up to the sky, and slowly begin to bend over your left leg, allowing your left hand to slide down your left leg. Stop when you feel a gentle stretch on your right side. Hold for 30 seconds, breathing gently through your nose, stretching a little deeper with each exhale. Repeat on the other side.
Lie on your back with your arms extended, like you’re forming a lowercase T with your body. Bend your knees so the soles of your feet are on the floor; shift your hips an inch off-center to the right. Now bring both of your knees into your chest. As you exhale, slowly lower your knees to the left. Hold for one minute, focusing on breathing slowly through your nose. Then bring your knees back to center, and lower your feet. Shift your hips an inch off-center to the left, and repeat the twist on the right side.
This article originally appeared in the March 2021 issue of Health Magazine. Click here to subscribe today!
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