Learn to Breathe Right

Are you breathing right? Experts say probably not.

An article in the Harvard Healthbeat newsletter says that we are all born with the knowledge of how to “fully engage” the diaphragm, a dome-shaped muscle at the base of the lungs. But as we get older, the experts say, we switch to a shallower version known as “chest breathing,” thanks to everything from sucking in the stomach to thinner to reacting to stress.

In diaphragmatic breathing, your diaphragm tightens and moves downward when you inhale. That, in turn, creates more space in your chest cavity, allowing the lungs to expand, the Harvard experts say. In exhaling, they say, the diaphragm relaxes and moves upward.

What’s so good about that? The Harvard experts say that diaphragmatic breathing makes for full oxygen exchange of incoming oxygen for outgoing carbon dioxide. The experts also say that diaphragmatic breathing (also called abdominal breathing) slows the heartbeat and can stabilize or even lower blood pressure.

This technique is especially important for people with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). In COPD sufferers, air can be trapped in the lungs, and that keeps the diaphragm pressed down. But diaphragmatic breathing, the experts say, can help people with COPD strengthen the diaphragm, and that means they’re using less effort and energy to breathe.

Here, the Harvard experts explain how to do diaphragmatic breathing:

Lie on your back on a flat surface (or in bed) with your knees bent. You can use a pillow under your head and your knees for support, if that’s more comfortable.

Place one hand on your upper chest and the other on your belly, just below your rib cage.

Breathe in slowly through your nose, letting the air in deeply, towards your lower belly. The hand on your chest should remain still, while the one on your belly should rise.

Tighten your abdominal muscles and let them fall inward as you exhale through pursed lips. The hand on your belly should move down to its original position.

You can also practice this sitting in a chair, with your knees bent and your shoulders, head, and neck relaxed. Practice for five to 10 minutes, several times a day if you can.

For more information on managing COPD, buy Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disorder, a special report from Harvard Health Publications. Click here to order.