While breathing is essential to sustain life, the way you breathe can have a big impact on the quality of your life — and if you’re pregnant — it can impact the health of your growing baby as well.
Why? Because the way you breathe influences your nervous system which, in turn, impacts how you feel, the energy you have, your core function, and even the fetal growth environment. Good breathing mechanics can improve immunity, digestion, energy, focus, sleep, and mood.
However, our high-stress, sedentary culture makes it very difficult to breathe with good mechanics. Instead, it has contributed to a common breathing pattern known as apical breathing, which can lead to higher stress levels, compromised immunity, and overall poorer health outcomes.
In this article, you’ll discover some of the many ways breathing impacts the body, and you’ll learn how to make some simple adjustments to the way you breathe to reap the substantial health benefits.
How Breathing Influences Your Nervous System
The nervous system is the “master controller” of the body. Whether it’s the primal reaction to bolt into action from a perceived threat, or feelings of calm that wash over you when lounging by the beach, your internal responses are dictated by your nervous system. And how you breathe is a big contributor to how your nervous system regulates itself. In other words, your breathing mechanics can either put your body into a state of relaxation or high-stress, and we want to help you do the former.
Try this exercise. Sit tall in a chair and place one hand on your chest and the other around the side of your ribs. Now take a few slow, deep breaths. When you inhale, what area of your body do you feel expanding most?
Optimal Breathing = 3-Dimensional Expansion
When you inhale, ideally you should see a 3-dimensional expansion in your rib cage (front, sides, and back) while your shoulders remain relatively still. On the exhale, you should see your navel drawing in toward your spine. We call this 360° Breathing, or the #1 most effective core exercise because it allows for optimal use of the diaphragm — your body’s primary respiratory muscle.
360° Breathing not only allows your body to pull in the most oxygen, but it also stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS), also known as the “rest and digest” system because it controls bodily functions when you are at rest. This helps to…
- Stimulate digestion
- Improve immunity
- Decrease stress
- Increase the ability to focus
- Improve the fetal growth environment
Bottom line: The more we are able to remain in this parasympathetic state, the better the physiological and psychological health outcomes (Hopper, et. al., 2019).
“Apical Breathing:” A Common Pattern Today
If you’re in the majority, however, when you performed those deep breaths, you may have noticed the expansion more in your neck and shoulders, like the photo below.
This is known as apical breathing. It is characterized by a vertical expansion (shoulders rising to ears). During apical breathing, the neck and shoulders act as the primary respiratory muscles instead of the diaphragm.
Unfortunately, the neck and shoulders were not designed to be respiratory muscles, so they are not as effective as the diaphragm in pulling oxygen into the body. Moreover, apical breathing stimulates the sympathetic nervous system (SNS), which triggers the “fight or flight” stress response. While this stress response proved very useful for our ancestors when confronted by a wild animal or other danger, today apical breathing is leading to chronic overstimulation of the SNS — with things like work emails, schedule juggles, and the endless to-do list eliciting the same “life or death” stress reaction in the brain.
All this can cause long-term, unfavorable changes in several areas, such as…
- Heart rate
- Blood pressure
- Insulin resistance
- Immune function
- Coronary health
- Ability to focus
- Energy levels
- Fetal growth environment
Why is Apical Breathing So Common?
One primary reason that many people breathe with this shallow, vertically-dominant strategy is due to the way the body is often positioned, especially during sitting. Alignment influences the ease, or difficulty, with which air can enter into the body. When you stand or sit in neutral alignment with vertical stacking of ear-shoulder-hip, the diaphragm is positioned to work most efficiently.
However, most people do not look like the photo above. Instead, the photo below is a much more common posture.
When slumped over in a chair, the diaphragm is not in a position to work as well. Therefore, the body has to figure out an alternate way to get air in. This is when the accessory muscles in the neck and shoulders jump in to do the job of respiration (apical breathing).
Simple Adjustments to Breathe Better
The great news is that just a few simple changes can yield HUGE health benefits! Follow these three easy steps to start breathing better today.
1. Sit up Tall
Like the woman in the first desk photo above, sit with your feet flat on the floor and vertical stacking from your ear-shoulder-hip so that your diaphragm is positioned to work most efficiently. Try to be aware of this position more throughout your day. Every time you catch yourself slouching, that’s a good sign (at least you were aware). If needed, set reminders on your phone or calendar, or utilize back support if your core muscles fatigue.
2. Practice 360° Breathing
While sitting tall in neutral alignment, spend just a few minutes each day practicing 360° Breathing. Take slow, deliberate breaths — inhaling through your nose (feeling that three-dimensional expansion) and exhaling through pursed lips. Watch the video demonstration below.
3. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.
Once your body is more accustomed to sitting in neutral alignment, and you’ve mastered the mechanics of 360° Breathing, start to become more aware of your breathing as you sit throughout your day. Even though you are not taking deep breaths all day, take a moment every so often to note what areas of your body are expanding as you inhale. You should notice that — over time, with enough practice — you begin to see a natural expansion in your rib cage instead of your neck and shoulders. Be patient with the process though, as changing a pattern that may have been engrained for years will take some time.
Want Additional Resources?
For additional resources to help you exercise safely and effectively during pregnancy, explore our training programs and services. You’ll find a variety of offerings tailored to different needs — from education, to self-guided programs, to the ability to work with an expert coach.
Or, if you’re a health & fitness pro interested in coaching pre & postnatal clients, check out our ProNatal Education & Certification.
Hopper, S. I., Murray, S. L., Ferrara, L. R., & Singleton, J. K. (2019). Effectiveness of diaphragmatic breathing for reducing physiological and psychological stress in adults: a quantitative systematic review. JBI Evidence Synthesis, 17(9), 1855-1876.
Salleh, M. R. (2008). Life event, stress and illness. The Malaysian journal of medical sciences: MJMS, 15(4), 9–18.