Adventures in diaphragmatic breathing
I have a confession to make: I used to be a mouth-breather.
Oh, I wasn’t the worst of all time–I don’t think anyone really noticed besides me–but I was definitely guilty of it. I’m not sure exactly when this began, but I realised about six months ago that, aside from when I was sitting there doing absolutely nothing, I would default to breathing through my mouth and into my upper chest. I partially blame childhood asthma that went undiagnosed for a long time and even resulted in me developing a hunch (which thankfully I did catch and correct at the time), but truth be told, I think it was habit combined with laziness.
Why is this bad? Well, on the mouth-breathing side of things, it literally changes the shape of your face. I likely have it to blame for failing to develop the superhero lantern jaw I always wanted. Vanity aside, we are designed to breathe through our noses except under extreme physical stresses, like lifting heavy weights or running. Our noses contain lots of little hairs (sometimes too many, as you start to discover as you get older!) that help filter contaminants out of the air we breathe. We absorb more oxygen from air when we use our noses, and smell is an important sense, helping us to detect dangers we might not otherwise be aware of (or sometimes just that someone on the damn train forgot to put deodorant on this morning).
Failing to breathe deeply into the belly is perhaps more serious. We have lots of important core muscles–most notably the diaphragm–that are strengthened through deep breathing. These muscles are highly important for keeping our spines stable in everyday life and especially under heavy loads. In the quest for more fabled “core strength”, ignoring the deep muscles involved in deep breathing is a big mistake. Just because you can’t see them in the mirror doesn’t mean they aren’t essential! Upper chest breathing is also a signal of panic for our bodies, helping us to maintain that low level of constant stress that modern life is characterised by for many of us. If you watch a small child breathe, they pull the air right into their belly.
I’ll bullet point some benefits for the sake of quick reading:
- Reduced stress hormones
- Better oxygen flow, particularly to the brain
- Lower blood pressure
- Helps to lower blood sugar, a good thing for lowering the risk of diabetes
- Reduces the number of free radicals floating around the bloodstream, helping our cells to be healthier and function better
- Increases how much growth hormone we produce, potentially slowing down the ageing process
- As with nasal breathing, this increases the amount of oxygen you take in per-breath, as the largest parts of our lungs are opened up (and squeezed) by the movement of the diaphragm.
- It feels good, resulting in the release of serotonin. There’s a reason that this is the way we are taught to breathe when meditating!
Take a second to notice how you’re breathing. Is your mouth slightly open? Are you sitting straight or hunched? Is your stomach swelling with your in-breath or is the movement restricted to your upper chest? If any of these things apply to you, you might want to make a change.
Making the transition
For me, the switch was flipped one night while driving up to Dublin from Tullamore when I heard Aubrey Marcus, CEO of Onnit, talking about this on Jason Ferruggia’s podcast. I realised that I was sitting slightly stooped, head jutting a little forward on my neck, breathing through my mouth into my chest. I resolved to change there and then, forcing myself to take deep, belly-expanding breaths and refusing to open my mouth to breathe except under extreme circumstances.
The difference was immediately noticeable. I felt calmer, a lesser form of that lovely wellbeing you feel from meditation coming over me. I even felt more alert, which I’ll attribute to the increased oxygen intake. I found that my posture automatically improved, without it being my main focus and my nose–which had previously felt congested–cleared considerably. In fact, that nasal congestion is something I’ve felt has been an issue most of my life and yet now I suspect it was more a weakness in the breathing-related muscles just not pulling air through hard enough.
It wasn’t all roses, though. That extra work on the muscles was not easy – it was strangely tiring to breathe like this, and by the time I’d completed the next hour of the drive to Dublin it was becoming more difficult to keep it up. I developed a weird tension in my face and most notably in my jaw as the musculature there worked differently than before–this is how it can affect facial development for kids, I’d imagine–which became uncomfortable after a while. It also took constant attention from me to make sure I kept it up. It’s an odd feeling to pay attention to how you breathe after so long just doing so on auto-pilot.
When it came time to get out of the car and carry my stuff up the stairs to my apartment the difference became even more pronounced. With just the slight exercise of walking to contend with I felt like I was no longer getting enough air into my body, slowly developing that panicked lightheadedness you get when you try to hold your breath and swim under water. It was a very interesting first night.
From that evening on, I’ve tried to be mindful of my breathing.
The next day’s cycle into work was tough. Sustained effort had me nearly cheating and using my mouth again, but I’d resolved to try to force myself to breathe for as long as possible through my nose, only allowing small breaks after sprints to make traffic lights or overtake someone on a three ton Dutch bike. I experienced a weird phenomenon whereby I was not well-practiced enough at either nasal or diaphragmatic breathing to breathe right, for lack of a better description, meaning that every so often I had to take a deep breath into my chest through my mouth in order to psychologically assure myself that I still had access to all the air I used to have.
I began using a lot more tissues, as keeping my nose clear became far more important than it had been before–and this is coming from someone who I don’t think anyone would have actually noticed used to breathe through his mouth so much! Worryingly, I really noticed the contamination from pollution in what went into those tissues (it’s difficult not to be too graphic about that!). It’s good to know that I’m no longer breathing as much black crap into my lungs as I was before.
I was hyper-aware of the position of my jaw at all times, as the aforementioned tension in my face was a real factor, particularly when I was being active. Even something as light as brisk walking caused me to feel like I was really pulling air into my body and my jaw would get tight. I’m still not entirely sure why, but it may have something to do with the previously-linked article’s points about jaw position and its affect on how open our airways are. Thankfully, over time this feeling has lessened considerably, and I hope that it will continue to do so. Likewise, the stamina in the deep muscles developed and I no longer notice a vague feeling of fatigue in my midsection.
I think the biggest help for me was committing to breathing nasally and diaphragmatically in the gym. The strain of recovering my breath quickly and efficiently when training, without allowing myself to open my mouth to do so except when sprinting or something similarly (an)aerobic–and even then, only for as long is it took to make nasal breathing bearable again–seemed to really force my body to adapt. Before long, it was rare that I opened my mouth at all to breathe during a regular training session and this seemed to have the largest carryover into everyday life. Once I made that switch, it definitely got easier to do so in general. I suppose I was literally training the muscles in an overloaded way, just like the rest of the workout!
Interestingly, I feel my recovery got better once the initial difficulty was overcome. It is also easier for me to stay calm in training sessions now, avoiding the sort of over-hyped state you can get into when dealing with heavy squats or similar lifts, as well as keeping negativity at bay on days when I didn’t feel as strong as I expected or wanted to. Hooray for serotonin!
There’s something powerful about deep, slow breathing, and doing so after a hard set feels weirdly heroic. Most guys (and likely some girls, though I’ve never discussed it with any) have probably experienced situations where they’ve wanted to appear the least tired of their companions after some exercise, such as in P.E in school, purposefully suppressing their panting while the other are sucking in air desperately. When you get good at (and force yourself to stick to) nasal, diaphragmatic breathing, you get much more efficient with it and this tiny bit of competitiveness is more easily satisfied. Petty, I know, but you take your little wins in life where you can… (side note: I wonder how long it will be until it’s acceptable to use emojis in “serious” writing? I feel like people won’t know when I’m joking without them nowadays).
Exercise doesn’t get more everyday (or every few seconds) than how we breathe. You may not breathe through your mouth much, but chances are if you are like 90% of people you are not currently breathing deeply and using your diaphragm as much as you should be. You don’t have to go as extreme as I did and get super anal about constantly monitoring your breath–that kind of thing is the reason I write this blog (and overthink everything in general!)–but even five minutes of conscious diaphragmatic breathing after your workouts, or extra attention when you do have to take a car journey, will help you long term.
Try monitoring and adapting your breathing over the next few days and let me know how you get on. I’d be curious to see how many of you notice a difference from how you normally breathe, and what you think of the new feeling.
For my part, I hope that the chances of you catching me with my mouth hanging open are dramatically reduced. I don’t know how I avoided braces…