Thursday, December 13, 2012

Learn how to breathe and you might even strengthen your core. No, really.

Stress does some funky things to our bodies.  I've made reference to the idea of using active recovery to help decrease your stress for longevity in life, and it's not a mystery any more that stress contributes to an awful lot of illness.  But stress has physical manifestations, and some of them detrimental in the long-term.

When your body responds to stress, it has no clue if that stress is because of traffic, a work deadline, you're running late, or because a grizzly bear is trying to eat you!  It just knows you are stressed, and it will react in the same basic ways related to survival, including maximal oxygen uptake.  These modes of function are not how we are intended to operate on a daily basis, but it winds up happening that way.  In order to maximize oxygen uptake the body recruits muscles that should otherwise be doing other things.  When a stress level is maintained, we get into the habit of "chest breathing" rather than breathing from the respiratory diaphragm.

The extended trouble with chest breathing can be excess tension in muscles up around the neck which attach to (and can help lift) ribs, and also dysfunction of core muscles, among other issues.  These can mean neck and head pain, as well as back and hip pain.  Retraining (and continually reinforcing) proper breathing mechanics in our daily life could help us all.  So read on for 2 different ways to go about this.

First is the method you can use at you desk at work, or even waiting at a stop light (but please, only when safely stopped!):
Place one hand on your abdomen and one on your chest.  Take a breath in using your abdomen and the respiratory diaphragm.  You should be feeling your abdomen hand get pushed out while the hand on your ribs stays undisturbed.  Then, reverse the movement, exhaling by gently pulling the navel back towards the spine and allowing the air to be pressed out of the lungs gently by the respiratory diaphragm.  If your top hand moves, no worries!  Just keep at it, and it will get more and more normal over time.
I recommend exaggerating this exercise with deeper, more pronounced (but not forced) inhalations and exhalations, just to reinforce being able to maximally inhale and exhale with this method, which should further reinforce it being reflexively used as your body's preferred method of breathing.

The second method is a 2-part exercise that will introduce engaging the transverse abdominis a bit more, which can help the firing sequence of the core muscles.  Research suggests that core muscle firing sequences which are out of order are often correlated to low back pain.
The first part of this exercise is to lay on your back.  Similar to above, you will place one hand on your abdomen and one on your chest.  Draw in a breath using the respiratory diaphragm and push it out using your abdomen (core muscles).  Try to inhale for a 4-count, hold for a 2-count, and exhale for a 4-count.  This will help to strengthen the respiratory diaphragm.
To address the transverse abdominis, we are going to turn over, on all-fours, and do the same abdominal breathing as above, but with the navel drawing towards the spine against gravity, the transverse abdominis will have the chance to get some strengthening in.

I recommend also trying the seated technique while standing.  You may find it easier or more challenging.

Practice the seated or standing exercises as often as you can - preferably 30 seconds, once an hour for a week or two.  Practice the other at least once a day for a total of 2 minutes.  If you have a regular yoga or pilates practice, some of these techniques may already be a part of your practice, but remember to bring them outside of the studio and into life.  You spend 22-23 hours of each day outside the studio, dealing with life and its stresses.  To be able to maintain these techniques in the face of minor daily stresses will help us return to them after greater stresses.