In this blog we are going to chat a bit about what your diaphragm does and why is so important in reducing stress and improving function and performance!
Before you continue reading I want you to put one hand on your chest and one had below your belly button and take a big breath in. Did the hand on your chest or the hand on your belly rise?
What is the diaphragm and why is it important that we use it when we breathe?
Breathing is quite literally the most important function of the body – it keeps us alive – but the majority of my clients don’t actually breathe well when I first see them. Most people will want to breathe up into their chest (chest breathing) rather than breathe into their belly (belly breathing). When we chest breathe we don’t activate and use our diaphragm muscle correctly.
You can see the diaphragm in the picture below. It is a dome-shaped muscle found below your ribcage. When you breathe in (inhale) the diaphragm contracts so your lungs can expand and use as much space as possible. As a result your belly needs to open outwards to make room. When you breathe out (exhale) the diaphragm relaxes and pushes the air back out your lungs and belly can relax back down again.
Your diaphragm muscle is designed to work continuously every day for your whole life without getting tired (quite impressive!). If you breathe up into your chest you use your intercostal muscles (between your ribs) and your neck muscles too much instead and these muscles become tired easily as they are not designed to work this way.
- Triggers the parasympathetic state (i.e. rest and digest state) which has many benefits including reduced blood pressure, improved heart rate variability, improving lung, digestive and lymph function and improves sleep quality. In other words it takes us out of our stress/fight or flight response!
- Lowers cortisol in your body – reducing stress on your system!
- Improves function of the immune system
- Can help in the management of many chronic conditions
From a Physiotherapy perspective diaphragmatic breathing also:
- Improves the activation of your psoas (hip flexors) and glute (bum) muscles and increases strength and stability
- Improves energy levels within the body (extra oxygen to every cell in the body)
- Improves your body’s ability to tolerate intense exercise exercise (improved performance)
- Prevents injury by improving the body’s efficiency
So how do we learn to breathe with our diaphragm?
So with my clients the first thing we do is perform a diaphragm activation to ‘wake up’ the diaphragm. We will discuss the activation techniques more in another blog but for now I am going to run you through this one for the diaphragm.
If you are struggling to improve your breathing pattern in this way please drop me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org and I will try and help you out with some further tips and tricks! My clients out there will have practiced this quite a lot!
How do you integrate this practice into your life?
At the moment most of you probably have a lot of time on your hands and can dedicate some time to this. However its important to figure out how you can continue when life gets busy again. Those key workers among you will be working as normal (if not more than normal!).
- Ask Alexa to ‘help me breathe’ – she will talk you through the process
- Use apps such a calm and headspace to meditate and focus on your breath
- Some smartwatches have a similar function now too – they will prompt you if you forget!
- Take 5 minutes first thing or last thing in the day to dedicate to breathing. Some of my clients like to practice their breathing lying in bed
- You don’t have to be lying on your back – practice sitting in the car or at your desk
- Set an alarm on your phone to practice every hour for 15 breaths
- Combine it with some yoga or strength exercises – its a challenge to breath well and move at the same time!
Eventually this way of breathing will become easier and more ‘automatic’. Sometimes in times of stress through, we will revert back to shallow chest breathing. When this happens it’s important we take time to reset our breathing pattern and allow our bodies to thrive and perform.
If you do one thing today – BREATHE