Your “Breathing” Can Steal Your Results: 4 Steps to Truly Breathe Again
Naeemah A.S. Brown CPT, CEO of BodyElevated, shares with us the importance of proper breathing.
This very month of February in 2008, American singers Jordin Sparks and Chris Brown released a song entitled, “No Air.” For me, it was a time of overwhelming pressure and specific lyrics of the song described my feelings exactly. I remember the line, “Tell me how I’m supposed to breathe with no air,” and how I frequently repeated it, as I continued to press forward each day. I literally felt as if the air in my environment was being sucked out. I recall how real this feeling was to me, and how I took the approach of strengthening my mind as I rationalized my situation to be simply a matter of emotions. These were the early years of my fitness journey as a professional, and I was less clear on how what happens to us mentally can absolutely manifest itself physically--and not just in some psychosomatic way. It was not until many years later, after studying the importance of oxygen and the role of breathing in peak performance, that I realized that may be my breathing issue had not been all in my head. Despite my exerting the necessary effort to maximize my results, I learned that what was in my head could really stunt my results. I had been doing for years what I had always been taught to do--that is to push through! I took every workout head on, because I had goals and I could not allow external pressures to keep me from reaching my them. This girl was hot! Little did I know that a key component, my breathing, was perhaps being compromised in the stress and that in turn made the achievement of my goals harder. While there is no substitute for hard work, in many cases, one must think about working smarter as well!
To understand my journey more deeply, let us start with understanding the importance of oxygen to muscle function. Simply put, muscles rely on oxygen for energy and that energy is critical for muscles to perform efficiently during work. Inefficient muscles are not as effective in performing physical activity, and as a result, the potential for growth from that activity is diminished. Let me use a specific sports example. If you desire to increase your muscle mass or to increase your muscle endurance to maintain your strength through a full 48 minute basketball game, it requires exerting effort in training that exceeds one to three minutes. Effort exerted surpassing three minutes exceeds the muscle’s ability to rely on converting a substance called pyruvate into a substance called lactate in order for muscles to contract and perform. In other words, above three minutes of training with inadequate oxygen will cause your muscles to diminish in performance, if not stop working all together. Thus, you are working hard but are hardly working. Fatigue seeps in quickly and your desired results are further away.
Now that we understand why oxygen is critical for muscle function, let us explore how your muscles get this oxygen. Your muscles depend on oxygen rich blood to extract the necessary oxygen they need to perform at a high level, so the amount of oxygen in the blood and blood flow will determine how much oxygen is delivered to your muscles. According to Craig Freudenrich Ph. D., the body has many ways to increase oxygen rich blood flow to working muscles. One that is important to our discussion is the rate and depth of breath. The idea is that as you breathe faster and deeper as a reaction to exerting effort while training, the lungs absorb more oxygen coupled with increased blood flow, and voila your muscles have more oxygen. But what if deeper is not an option? The rate of breath increases as a natural reaction, but the depth of breath is only maximized with unrestricted use of respiratory muscles which allow the complete filling of the lungs.
One respiratory muscle whose common difficulties cause suboptimal levels of oxygen in the blood is the diaphragm. Without getting too technical, the best way to define the function of the diaphragm is to describe it as the source of the vacuum effect required to fully fill the lungs. This strong sheet like muscle that is fixed to the lumbar vertebrae and inferior ribs relaxes and contracts. It creates a difference in pressure between the external air and the thoracic cavity. When we inhale, the diaphragm should contract downward allowing the outside air to be drawn in filling the lungs, and conversely as it relaxes back up, the air is pushed back out of the lungs. This is healthy breathing.
So, I started out using the word misconception. This is because, like me, many make the assumption that this is a process that nothing can impede. This is a costly assumption. Many factors can alter the diaphragms ability to function properly. The factor that we will focus on today, which has become more and more common, is tension caused by stress.
In 2019, it is common knowledge that mental and emotional stress can cause us to carry tension in our body. Most people acknowledge the carrying of stress to our upper traps and neck, but we, in fact, can carry tension from the cares of this world in our tummies, backs, and chests. These are the very areas that surround and support our diaphragm. The result of all of this is the movement of the diaphragm is restricted. This vital respiratory muscle cannot fully contract or relax because it is now fighting against the rigidity of the formerly more flexible environment. In addition, the diaphragm is directly linked to our stress response and emotional centers in our brain. Thus, the overload of anxiety and emotions are directly connected to the dysfunction of the diaphragm. And yes, now let us connect the dots. When the diaphragm is prevented from reaching its full range of motion, we are robbed of the maximum amount of oxygen available for each breath.
This is how, I believe, I suffered. My breathing issue was not necessarily just all in my head and yours may not be either! Most of us live with a high level of stress from family, work, and the aggressive goals that we are determined to achieve. Unfortunately, this level of stress has become a normal state of being, so much so, that we often do not realize the level of stress that we are experiencing and, in turn, do not notice the constant tension we are carrying in our bodies. Have you ever had someone say take your tongue off the roof of your mouth or relax your shoulders and you had no idea it was even happening? Therefore, when we head to the gym for our dose of stress release, to achieve our fitness goals and to maintain the bodies that allow us to push through the daily stress, let us be aware that our performance may be diminished. Not because, as you guessed it, we are weak, but because we are not getting the oxygen necessary to support the peak performance required to maximize our results. We are simply not breathing the way our bodies were created to breathe. Or as a favorite quote of mine by Esther Gokhale states, “Most people breathe enough not to die.” Yikes, this type of breathing cannot possibly support our fitness journey.
We put in too much hard work to allow this silent thief to steal any of our results. So, here are Four Steps to Truly Breathe Again:
1. 5 Minutes of Meditation- My faith carries me a long way in this area. Prior to starting my workout, I put on some white noise in my earphones (as the gym can be very noisy), find the stretching area, lay down on my back and repeat this short phrase, “I am loved, I am protected, it’s already done.” This clears out any cares, anxiety or stress that I may subconsciously be carrying in my body. I can literally feel my body beginning to relax in areas that I had no idea were tight.
2. Reset Your Breath- Lie down on your back, still and relaxed, placing a bolster or larger foam roller under your lower thigh to knee region. Begin belly breathing by intentionally inhaling, allowing your belly to expand and rise and then slowly exhaling, allowing the belly to fall to empty. These slow deep breaths cause the diaphragm to move in a way that will not only make you aware of your breathing, but they will also calm your nervous system and release stress. This can be done for five minutes at a time daily to keep you in tune with your breathing in order to alleviate the stress that causes tension.
3. Release your Tight Tummy- Lie facedown and place a coregeous ball (or one like it) on your navel. First, take 5 to 10 abdominal breaths. Second, shift your body from side to side, continuing to breathe, 10 to 20 times, crossing the fibers to begin loosening the soft tissue in your abdominal area. Finally, track the ball slowly up and down from the bottom of your “breastbone” (sternum) down to the pubic symphysis.
4. Avoid Poor Posture- Poor posture can alter the original state of your ribcage-- the home of our diaphragm. These changes can in turn affect your diaphragm’s ability to perform properly. Many of us sit for hours on end throughout the day. Avoid poor posture and preserve your ability to truly breathe and receive adequate oxygen for peak performance.
Now that you know, take a deep breath and get back out there, the journey awaits.
The Roll Model by Jill Miller