Relax. Take a deep breath.

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How often have we been given this advice in our lifetimes? 

  • When we’re upset or frustrated
  • When we’re nervous and overwhelmed
  • In a state of excitement or surrounding competition 

The practice of controlled breathing has been around forever, however the science and technology behind understanding our breath and its effects on our bodies and minds has been a popular topic over the last decade. 

“Take a deep breath.” This adage has been commonly linked with instructions to slow down – relax – re-centre. Breathing deeply connects to your ‘baroreflex sensitivity’: your hearts’ ability to regulate blood pressure. This allows your heart rate to slow, leading to less stress on your heart and the surrounding vessels. Being able to control breath isn’t solely a job for the mind. Your body has a complex and beautiful respiration system that must be well cared for to breathe efficiently.

There are two parts to respiration: inhaling and exhaling. 

Inhaling requires the muscles of your thoracic cavity to EXPAND, while exhaling requires muscles to COMPRESS. 

Your body has the ability to breathe in both a voluntary or involuntary manner, meaning you can take a breath if you’d like, otherwise your body will automatically do it for you. Any muscle that attaches to your rib cage has the ability to affect breath, but there are some major muscles that are responsible for breathing. The primary muscles for inhalation are your diaphragm  (the big dome-shaped muscle below your ribs) and your intercostals (muscles between your ribs). Your diaphragm is an incredibly important muscle to focus on, as it allows you to breathe efficiently, taking in more oxygen, without stressing accessory tissues. 

While those muscles do the heavy lifting, we have a lot of accessory muscle tissue that likes to pitch in:  sternocleidomastoid muscle (SCM), scalenes, latissimus dorsi, abdominal muscles and many more are often recruited in times of need, like increased exercise and load, and to compensate for any dysfunction in the respiratory system. It isn’t uncommon for patients to visit our clinic space, having injured a rib or strained a muscle during  a movement like lifting, twisting or straining where breath and effort were not aligned. 

Strengthening exercises for breathing are essential for respiratory health.

One of the most common exercises is:

Diaphragmatic Breathing

  1. Lay on your back in a comfortable position, with your knees bent and feet planted, or a pillow under the knees. 
  2. Place one hand on your belly and one on your chest. 
  3. Inhale, focusing on filling your belly with air, while keeping the hand on your chest still.
  4. Hold briefly – then exhale, allowing the hand on your belly to gently follow the air as it is released. 
  5. Complete for 5 minutes, 3-4x per day, increasing the length of time for exercise as desired. 

Ready to strengthen your diaphragm?

Blow up a balloon! A simple and effective method to challenge exhaling, as the balloon will allow for resistance.

  1. Complete in a similar position to Diaphragmatic Breathing, with feet planted on the ground, knees bent. 
  2. Allow for your shoulders to be flat on the floor and relaxed. 
  3. Inhale, focusing your energy on the same belly breath.
  4. Exhale, blowing into the balloon hard, tightening the stomach and depressing your diaphragm. 
  5. Blow up the balloon fully. Let out the air completely. Repeat x 5. 

Yin Yoga and other sustained stretching and decompression practices offer fantastic positions to open and relax the muscles surrounding your rib cage. Child’s pose and banana pose offer wonderful stretches for your lats and intercostal muscles. If you’re stuck at your desk for long periods of time, doorway stretches for your pec major and minor help to open your chest, allowing for a more relaxed posture and ability to breathe with ease. 

Manual therapy is extremely beneficial in relieving tension and dysfunction associated with restrictions of our respiratory muscles. Massage Therapy, physiotherapy and chiropractic care all often a hands-on approach to lengthening, relieving and improving tissue health and pain. Our recovery studio, Recover RX has many treatment options that can help as well. Our Sunlighten Infrared Sauna is a great option to promote cardiovascular health and lower blood pressure. Not to mention, it’s a great way to warm up as temperatures begin to cool. Alongside Diaphragmatic Breathing, the heat improves blood circulation, allowing more oxygen to your body’s cells and improves your immune system. Studies show that consecutive use weekly leads to lower instances of colds and better ability to fight off viruses. 

Kelly Salvador RMT, is a Registered Massage Therapist and the co-founder of Recover RX, Canada’s first recovery studio for the modern athlete. Kelly has created a strong relationship with Ottawas’ athletic community, working with junior and professional athletes to provide them with sport-focused treatment approaches to support their athletic endeavors.  Alongside Dr. Joanna Taylor, founder of Kinetic Edge, a multidisciplinary chiropractic, physiotherapy and massage clinic in the heart of Ottawa, their mission is to provide our community with the most up to date and effective treatment and recovery therapies.