''Good Breathing” corrects posture and boosts energy at work
Breathing…it’s an action we do about 100,000 times each week of our lives. And for most of the time we are not even consciously aware that we are breathing, let alone whether we are breathing well. In this article we take a look at the mechanics of breathing, and how essential “Good Breathing” is to healthy posture and positive energy levels.
How and Why do we Breathe?
Breathing is essential to our wellbeing. The main reason that we breathe is so that our body can gain the oxygen that it needs in order that it might then have enough energy to survive and complete daily tasks.
When we breathe, air firstly passes in through the nose, where:
(a) odours are detected,
(b) dust can be collected,
(c) the air can be conditioned with both warmth and moisture before entering the lungs.
The air then travels down the windpipe (Trachea), dividing into the left and right lungs where it continues to enter smaller and smaller pipes inside the lungs (like the branches of a tree), eventually arriving at the 400 million small bubble-like sacs called Alveoli. It is at this point that the Oxygen from the air is absorbed into the body and Carbon Dioxide is released back out on the outgoing breath. Amazingly the total surface area of all these little bubbles (Alveoli) is about the same surface area as a quarter of a tennis court!!
The mechanics of breathing
Breathing is an amazing mechanical process. In order to get the lungs to take in air, the body uses the muscles surrounding the lungs to create a vacuum inside the chest cavity for the air to rush in.
This is done in three ways:
1. The Diaphragm muscle: The diaphragm is the most important breathing muscle. When we breathe in, this large flat muscle lying at the base of the chest cavity descends downwards creating a powerful suction that draws air into the lungs. When you are using this part of your body to breathe you will notice your stomach moves in and out. Because the lungs are shaped like pyramids, with the bulk of the lungs at the bottom of the chest, it makes more sense to use the lower part of the lungs in order to get the most efficient transfer of Oxygen and Carbon Dioxide.
2. Neck and Shoulder muscles: Many of the muscles of the neck and shoulders are attached to the ribcage. These muscles combine during breathing to either stabilize the ribcage (during normal diaphragm muscle breathing), or lift the ribs upwards in order to draw in further air, especially in emergency breathing or at times of additional demand for air. This is called ‘Upper Chest Breathing’.
3. The Muscles between the ribs: There are two groups of muscles, one on the inside and one on the outside of the ribs, that help to lift and expand the rib cage. This is called ‘Lateral Costal’ breathing.
What is 'Good Breathing'?
Experts believe that there are both ‘good’ and ‘incorrect’ ways of breathing. Understanding these processes can be effective in developing good postural habits and boosting energy.
Let’s take the typical scenario of an office based, desk bound worker. When seated at their desk, the body normally has no demand on it for extra air, (unlike when someone is running). In this seated desk situation, “Good Breathing” would be a situation where the diaphragm muscle initiates quiet breathing supported by other healthy abdominal (tummy) muscles.
How can I tell if ‘Good Breathing’ is happening?
A simple way to tell if you are breathing well is to sit in an upright chair and place one hand on your upper chest (just below your collarbone) and the other hand on your tummy (just below your tummy button). Then as you breathe in, observe which hand moves first. With ‘Good Breathing’, the hand on your tummy should move outwards first, with perhaps a small rise of your hand on your upper chest towards the end of the “breath in cycle.”
Note that ‘Good breathing’ also requires that your incoming breath enters your body through your nose.
Why is 'Incorrect' Breathing a Problem?
‘Incorrect’ breathing can result in significant physical and emotional problems. These occur when ‘Upper chest’ or ‘Lateral Costal’ breathing have become our regular breathing pattern. Some of the symptoms associated with breathing disorders include:
- Tingling in fingers
- Low back pain
- Postural imbalances
- Poor concentration
- Dry mouth
- Chronic Fatigue
Let’s take a look at the physical and emotional problems resulting from incorrect breathing in a little more detail.
Postural (Physical) Problems
When it comes to breathing, the chest, neck and shoulder muscles are designed to be used in breathing emergencies (or for supplementing our normal resting breath), we take each week!
When there is a decrease in Diaphragm breathing and more demand is placed on these other breathing muscles, then postural changes and muscle shortening can occur. The typical postural stance one can end up with is one of rounded shoulders and head protruded forwards.
Incorrect breathing and this resulting posture, combined with long periods of sitting in front of a PC each day, can become a recipe for a range of ongoing aches and pains in the musculoskeletal parts of your body
In addition, when the body is at rest (e.g. seated), constant use of the upper chest muscles to breathe use about 10-30% of the available energy compared to the energy efficient Diaphragm Breathing at 2-4% of energy levels!! This in itself can be another cause of fatigue
Emotional and Energy Problems
Good Breathing is not only about getting the correct levels of Oxygen into the body, but also ensuring that the correct levels of Carbon Dioxide are maintained in the body. Often with Upper Chest breathing this fine balance can be upset. This upset can occur especially when “over-breathing” becomes chronic and the Carbon Dioxide levels in the body start to drop. As a result, the “Flight & Fight” part of the autonomic nervous system kicks in, which puts our body on “High Alert”. This is hardly a great scenario if we are already stressed at work!!
Lower levels of Carbon Dioxide also mean that Oxygen is not as readily released from the red blood cells into the tissues. The reduction of red blood cells is particularly evident in the brain where its oxygen supply may be reduced by as much as 50%. This results in an obvious reduction in concentration and general tolerance levels.
Breathing Exercises: How do I Development 'Good Breathing'?
Here are some tips to help you develop healthy breathing:
1. Find time to focus on your breathing and practice diaphragm breathing.
(a) This can be done at home, lying on your back, supported comfortably with pillows, with your arms above your head and your knees bent. As you tune into your breathing, focus on nose-breathing and allowing the belly to rise and fall.
(b) You can focus on your breathing at work when in the seated position. Clasp your hands behind you in order to release shoulder and neck tension and will bring the diaphragm into play. Take the time to focus on nose-breathing and observe the tummy expanding and contracting (going in and out).
2. Review your seated posture as part of a regular Workstation Assessment.
It is important to regularly assess your workstation set up. A professional may be required to assist in this process, particularly if you are experiencing pain or discomfort.
3. Take time out to truly relax.
Massage and meditation work well here. For more ideas on relaxation see the article on our website ‘Need a Relaxing Way to Manage Stress at Work?’.
4. Move and stretch on a regular basis.
Our bodies were designed to move, so it is important to include regular exercise and activity in your day. This has the added advantage of loosening up tight muscles in the neck and shoulders (that can result from sitting), which in turn aids our breathing.
5. Access professional assistance if necessary
If you feel you need more help then speak to your medical professional about your breathing.
Conclusion: The Benefits of Proper Breathing
Breathing is crucial to good posture and positive energy levels at work. What is encouraging, is that making small changes, such as those noted above can make the difference between feeling sluggish or feeling fresh, alive, excited and motivated at work!
Ross Thomson, a Director of Joyworkz Ltd.
Bartley, J. with Clifton-Smith, T. 2006. Breathing Matters: A New Zealand guide. Auckland: Random House
Bradley, D. & Clifton-Smith, T. 2005. Breathe Stretch & Move (get rid of workplace stress. Auckland: Random House
Bradley, D. 1998. Hyperventilation Syndrome. Auckland: Tandem Press.
Tips, training and resources
Staff training: Wellness training for staff can motivating and help staff know that you care. Joyworkz offer a range of appropriate workplace wellness seminars including "Standing up to Stress" and "Being a Happy Computer User" that assist staff to be healthy and happy at work.
Computer Workstation Desk Assessment and Set up: It is important for the prevention of discomfort, pain and injury that staff workstations and desks are set up correctly. Check out the Joyworkz free practical guide to carry out a workstation assessment. Alternatively, Joyworkz can complete thorough and professional ergonomic workstation assessments for your staff, to ensure that all reasonable risks are mitigated. Joyworkz also offer Computer ergonomic assessment training, popular with large organisations, when staff are trained to perform workstation assessments for their colleagues.
A wellness programme: Consider designing a made to measure wellness programme to target areas of risk. If you need help getting started consider Joyworkz SimplyWell™ consultancy package, which takes the stress out of designing a workplace wellness programme.
HabitatWork (ACC): HabitAtWork is a free online educational tool promoting self-help and problem solving for preventing and managing discomfort, pain and injury.
Visual prompts: Visual prompts in the workplace can be useful. For instance, the free Alsco heart health poster 'Take a Deep Breath' or the Alsco Computer Users Health Guide wall chart can also be printed out and kept visible for staff.
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