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By Dr. Jordan Duncan
For West Sound SportsPlus

Breathing with your diaphragm is associated with numerous physical and mental health benefits.

Have you ever noticed how a toddler breathes? They often run around without a shirt on, and when they stop moving you can see their midsection expand and contract. The reason behind this abdominal movement is that they are using their diaphragm to breathe.

What you are witnessing is breathing in its natural state, the way we were made to do it.  Before the inevitable stresses of life set in, before years of sedentary desk jobs, before we were taught to slim and hollow our midsections, we all looked like this when we breathed. 

The diaphragm (pictured in yellow) is our primary breathing muscle. It is located at the bottom of the rib cage, dividing the torso into chest and abdominal cavities.

Learning to once again breathe using your diaphragm can improve mood, decrease stress and calm anxiety

When it contacts, the diaphragm moves downward, causing our abdomen to distend. When it relaxes, it moves back to its normal resting position. Contraction of the diaphragm allows air to be drawn into our lungs, and relaxation pushes the air out. 

As we move out of childhood, it is not uncommon to adopt more of an upper chest breathing pattern. This is accomplished by lifting the chest via muscles that attach to the shoulder girdle or upper rib cage, including the scalenes, upper trapezius, and pectoralis minor. These are a few of the accessory muscles of inhalation. Don’t worry about remembering their names, just know that breathing isn’t their main function. When called on to be primary breathing muscles, they are repeatedly doing a job that they really weren’t designed to do. 

This doesn’t mean that the rib cage doesn’t have a role in breathing. It still moves during inhalation and exhalation, but we don’t want it to dominate the movement. We were designed to breathe primarily using the diaphragm. 

Diaphragmatic breathing has numerous physical and mental health benefits. 

  • It can improve mood, increase resilience of the stress response system, and calm anxiety through its influence on the vagus nerve and parasympathetic nervous system. 
  • It reduces the workload on the aforementioned accessory muscles of inhalation, thereby reducing tension on the neck and shoulders. 
  • It improves spinal stability by increasing intra-abdominal pressure. When the diaphragm descends, it increases pressure in the abdomen. This pressure is a stabilizing mechanism for the spine. 

So how do you breathe using your diaphragm?

Just like learning any other skill, diaphragmatic breathing requires practice. The good thing about this skill is that you have done it before, many times in your life.

If you are physically able to engage in a mild breathing exercise, begin either in sitting or by lying on your back with hips and knees bent and feet flat on the ground.

Place one hand on your chest and the other hand on your belly. 

Inhale for a count of 4, then exhale for a count of 4. Both inhalation and exhalation should be through your nose.  Repeat for several minutes.

You want to feel your belly hand move, signaling descent of your diaphragm, while your chest hand remains relatively still. This might be difficult at first, as your chest hand may be more apt to move, but you can develop it with practice. 

A few simple tips can help promote diaphragmatic breathing during this practice

  • You can visualize your belly as a balloon. When you inhale you are filling up the front, back, and sides of the balloon. 
  • You can imagine breathing into your pelvic floor. This cue promotes proper descent of your diaphragm.

The goal with practice is to ingrain diaphragmatic breathing into your central nervous system so it becomes habitual. Most of the breathing we do is subconscious, therefore you want to make diaphragmatic breathing your default movement pattern so you don’t have to think about it. 

You can also perform this exercise when you feel stressed or overwhelmed.

While the rate of respiration varies between individuals, let’s say that on average people take 17 breaths per minute. This would result in nearly 25 thousand breaths per day and roughly 9 million breaths per year. Small changes in breathing patterns can result in big changes over time. 

Incorporating diaphragmatic breathing is a simple way to improve your health. Just like changing any other habit, it takes a few weeks of practice several times per day to become second nature. 

Our bodies were created to breathe in a certain way, and we can reap the physical and mental rewards when we do. 

Dr. Jordan Duncan is the owner of Silverdale Sport & Spine, a sports medicine clinic located in Silverdale, WA. 

Dr. Duncan is one of a small handful of chiropractors in the state of Washington to be certified in the McKenzie Method® of Mechanical Diagnosis and Therapy, a reliable evidenced based method of assessment and treatment for musculoskeletal conditions of the spine and extremity joints. 

In addition to treating a diverse patient population, Dr. Duncan enjoys treating athletes and has worked with numerous high school, collegiate, and professional athletes. He has served as an expert opinion for a wide variety of healthcare and fitness articles. 

As a competitive athlete growing up in Kitsap County and a current runner, Dr. Duncan understands the importance of quickly returning to your sport, whether you are a long distance bike rider, high school soccer player, recreational golfer, avid CrossFitter, or enjoy another activity. 

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