Breathing for Good Posture


Dave Turpin

Good posture is a fundamental requirement for good health.  Poor posture results in muscle tension.  Muscles under tension have reduced blood flow and can not be properly nourished.  This chain of events will eventually lead to seemingly unrelated health issues such as headaches, pain in other parts of the body and dis-ease.

A person with poor posture is usually the result of several variables gone awry… not just one.  Poor eyesight, stress, depression, muscle imbalances, repetitive movements and soft tissue injuries could all contribute to the situation.  This article will address how breathing impacts your posture.

If you’ve ever watched a baby breath they will always breathe diaphragmatically.  It doesn’t matter if they are sitting, lying down or being held up in a standing position.  When they breathe in their belly expands outward.  When they breathe out their belly draws inward.

Babies instinctively breathe through their nose.  If their nasal cavities become blocked an “emergency” alarm goes off.  The baby will cry which allows breathing through the mouth.  When their nasals are cleared they will return to breathing through their nose.

A baby’s breathing pattern is unlearned and optimal for health and posture.  The trials of life in adolescence and adulthood shifts us from being optimal “baby breathers” to stress induced mouth and chest breathers.  Breathing through the mouth and chest is referred to as an inverted breathing pattern and is a contraindication for optimal health and fitness.

Many of the mind-body-spirit disciplines such as martial arts, yoga, and Pilates recognize the importance of proper breathing.  Voice instructors are also excellent sources for learning optimal breathing patterns.

Nasal Breathing vs. Mouth Breathing. The anatomy of the nasal passage has several unique features that conditions incoming air before it reaches the lungs.  The nasal passage has a series of ridges in it that causes incoming air to be swirled around as it passes through.  This swirling air then hits hairs and obstructions in the nasal passage.  Foreign particles such as dust and air pollution larger than the gas molecules of the air are captured and prevented from reaching the lungs.  This natural filter is very efficient at removing even the smallest foreign objects.

The swirling process of the air as it bounces around the mucus membranes also allows the air to be warmed to an optimal temperature before entering the lungs.  The mucus membranes also serve to moisten the incoming air and ward off infection.

When breathing through the mouth the features and benefits of nasal breathing are bypassed.  Dry, contaminated air is allowed to reach the lungs directly resulting in reduced respiration capacity and increased risk of infection.

Mouth breathing may interpreted by the brain as a fight or flight reaction.  In a sense, the body is in a constant state of stress when can alter chemical and hormonal states.  Increased heart rate, compromised digestive processes, blood pressure changes and increased brain activity have all been linked to sympathetic responses to mouth breathing.

Diaphramatic vs. Chest Breathing. External respiration occurs when gases are exchanged between the atmosphere and the lungs.  Internal respiration occurs when gases are exchanged between the blood and the cells.  Both are necessary to maintain life.

Respiration occurs when the volume of the chest cavity changes.  When the volume of the chest cavity increases the pressure of the air in the lungs is less than the atmospheric pressure.  This difference in pressure between the chest cavity and the atmosphere forces atmospheric air to enter the lungs.  In a sense, when we breathe in our chest is drawing air in.  Our nose and mouth has nothing to do with the process.

When the volume of the chest cavity decreases the air in the lungs is compressed created a pressure in the lungs that is greater than the atmospheric pressure.  This pressure difference forces the compressed air in the lungs to be expelled to the atmosphere just like letting air escape from a blown up balloon.

There are only two ways to change the volume of the chest cavity:  By using the PRIMARY respiratory muscle or SECONDARY respiratory muscles.  The primary respiratory muscle should provide for sufficient respiration when in a relaxed or rested state, such as sitting at your desk.  The secondary respiratory muscles should only kick in when additional respiration is required, such as walking at a brisk pace.

The primary respiratory muscle is the diaphragm.  The diaphragm allows the volume in the chest cavity to change.  When the diaphragm moves downward it increases the volume of the chest cavity allowing air to enter the lungs.  It also forces the viscera (internal organs) downward which creates the illusion that the stomach is expanding.  Of course, no air is actually going into the stomach.

When the diaphragm moves upward it decreases the volume of the chest cavity forcing air to be expelled from the lungs.   The viscera that was forced down when breathing in is now allowed to return to its resting position creating the illusion that the stomach is smaller.

Secondary respiratory muscles include muscles between the ribs (intercostals) and muscles of the neck, specifically the sternocleidomastoid (SCM) and scalenes.

The intercostals change the volume in the chest cavity by increasing or decreasing the space between the ribs.

The SCM, which is that large muscle that attaches behind the ear and attaches to the sternum (top of center of the chest) and clavicle (collar bone) changes the volume of the chest by lifting the chest cavity up.  Likewise, the scalene muscles, which connect from the cervical (neck) spine and the first rib (top of the rib cage just below the clavicle) also raise and lower the rib cage.  The hyoid bone, in the neck, also has ligamentous attachments to the top of the lungs which help to raise the lungs up.

The secondary respiratory muscles are designed to be activated for short durations when increased respiratory capacity is needed.  Chest breathers are essentially using their secondary respiratory muscles all the time and often lose the ability to use their diaphragm at all.  The constant use of the secondary respiratory muscles and lack of the use of the diaphragm is called a faulty motor program.

The constant contraction of the secondary respiratory muscles, to the tune of 26,000 breaths a day alters the length and tension of these neck muscles.  These muscles will tend to become tighter (hypertonic) and shortened as a result of overuse.  Tight, short neck muscles will tend to pull the head forward into a forward head posture.  Have you ever seen a person with their head sticking out in front of them?

Forward head posture not only alters the aesthetics of the individual, but also leads to headaches, migraines, muscle tension, reduced respiratory capacity, limited range of motion of the neck, increased likelihood of bursitis in the shoulder joint and shoulder impingement syndrome.

In order to maintain good posture and optimal health you must make it a habit to diaphragmatically breathe through your nose.  It is also a more calming breathing pattern.  Try it the next time you’re late for an appointment and the traffic congested.

Breathe like a baby!

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