The future of the health and fitness industry is moving closer towards being a more holistic business. And this is for good cause. To have a greater impact on the health and well being of our clients as well as move further ahead of our competitors, we have to diversify ourselves with skills that will allow us to help our clients on a deeper level.
The day is approaching when people will not settle for an exercise professional who can only put them on a mediocre exercise program, at best. When you break it down, typically an exercise professional will see a client a maximum of three out of 168 hours per week, and some clients only check in every few weeks for appropriate progressions. That is not a huge amount of time for you to improve or impact their lives. By arming yourself with the right skills, however, you can improve the other 165 hours of your clients' week, thereby benefiting them to a much greater degree. They will see you as a very skillful professional, and they will tell their friends about this great trainer who can do much more than just prescribe what exercises to do.
The aim of this article is to help you start developing skills that will enable you to help clients on a deeper level. In the first of this two part series, we will explore the anatomy of breathing, the benefits derived from optimal breathing and what exactly optimal breathing is.
A Breath of Fresh Air
Breathing is the best place to start on any quest toward improving someone’s overall quality of life. Respiration is the intake of oxygen and the release of carbon dioxide. There are very few things we do more than breathing. There is certainly nothing you do that is more vital to your survival. In fact, in his survival todem pole, Paul Chek ranks breathing as your body’s number one priority. Your brain will literally sacrifice whatever it needs to in order to ensure respiration takes place. Your first breath marks the beginning of life, and your last breath marks the end of life here on earth. In between these two very important breaths, there are many others taken. In fact, most people take well over 20,000 breaths per day.
You might be asking yourself, “Why do I need to be educated on breathing?” After all, it is something we usually don’t even have to think about. But the problem with breathing is that in this day and age, the vast majority of people do most of their breathing incorrectly.
Incorrect breathing actually has the potential to cause or contribute to a number of health problems including but not limited to cardiovascular problems, increased stress, visceral disorders and musculoskeletal dysfunction among other things. These issues are some of the biggest problems in people today. It has been said that poor breathing plays a role in about 75 percent of the ills that cause individuals to see their doctor.
Just imagine if you did anything pathologically 20,000 times per day. Assume, for example, that you have a fixed thoracic kyphosis, and you do 20,000 medicine ball back tosses per day. You would surely develop a world class shoulder impingement syndrome! Not that breathing is as dynamic as a medicine ball back toss, but the point is that if you do anything incorrectly repeatedly day in and day out, pathology is sure to come. That is why if you teach your clients how to breathe properly, you can impact their health far greater than if you simply stick to traditional gym exercises.
The Anatomy of Breathing
Why do we breathe? The obvious answer is because we need to. A more precise answer is because our cells require it. As everyone knows, we are made up of cells. Our cells require energy. The energy our cells require is derived from the nutrients we eat and the oxygen we breathe.
Oxygen is circulated throughout the body by the heart and lungs. In order for oxygen to reach our cells, it is delivered to the blood by the heart and is carried by hemoglobin in the blood until it reaches the tiny thin walled capillaries. At these capillaries, the oxygen is released into the tissues in exchange for carbon dioxide. The oxygen-depleted blood is then returned to the heart.
While the heart and lungs circulate oxygen throughout the body, it is the action of the respiratory muscles that draws the oxygen into the body.
The act of breathing is a beautifully orchestrated chain of events. A well taken breath involves the coordination of many muscles, among them the primary respiratory muscles and the accessory respiratory muscles. Respiratory muscles can also be classified as having an inspiration function or expiration function. It is during inspiration that many people are dysfunctional.
In the tables below, you will find the involved musculature needed for the act of respiration.
|Table 1: Inspiratory Muscles
|Table 2: Expiratory Muscles
||Serratus Posterior Inferior
The most important respiratory muscle is the diaphragm. The diaphragm is a dome shaped muscle in the thoracic cavity. It has attachments to the xiphoid process, the lower six ribs and their corresponding cartilages and is also connected via its crura to the L2 and L3 lumbar vertebral bodies. The function of the diaphragm will be explored individually here because of its importance for optimal breathing.
Upon inhalation, the diaphragm descends inferiorly. This increases the space within the chest, and as this space is increased, the atmospheric pressure exceeds the pressure in the chest and air flows inside the lungs to balance out the pressure. During respiration, the elastic recoil of the diaphragm along with the expiratory muscles will create exhalation.
The diaphragm’s movement is very important for the health of the abdominal viscera. Every time the diaphragm descends, it essentially massages the viscera. This can be seen by observing the abdominal wall. Simply watch as someone takes a diaphragmatic breath, and the abdominal wall protrudes out. When this happens, the diaphragm descends, pushing the viscera down and out. Some of the included viscera that benefit from this massage are the stomach, gallbladder, small and large intestines, liver, spleen, bladder and colon. Thus, diaphragmatic breathing serves to promote peristaltic movement of the stomach and bowels.
The diaphragm also has connection to the heart. The heart lies on top of the central tendinous portion of the diaphragm and is attached to the diaphragm by fascia. Any diaphragmatic movement will cause heart movement because of the fascial connection. The vena cava, which pierces the diaphragm, is increased in size momentarily when the diaphragm moves inferiorly. The vena cava’s temporary increase in size reduces the pipe blood pressure and allows for a faster blood flow back to the heart.
Interestingly enough, studies show a correlation between lack of diaphragmatic movement and heart disease. One study reported that when heart attack patients are taught to breathe diaphragmatically, their chances for a second heart attack are significantly reduced.
To illustrate the relationship between the heart and the diaphragm, I will use the experience of a client of mine. A female client was experiencing an extremely high heart rate during her spinning classes. Before the start of class, she would have a normal heart rate. Even before the spin workouts would start to get intense, her heart rate would sky rocket. After a couple of classes, the instructor had my client try a different heart rate monitor, thinking the monitor was faulty. The second heart rate monitor read the exact same thing as the first.
My client consulted doctors regarding this problem, but none of them could find anything wrong with her. She came to me and told me of the problem. I examined her breathing tendencies and found she was a chest breather (chest breathing will be talked about below), which meant she had little diaphragmatic movement during respiration. I taught her how to breathe correctly and gave her breathing exercises to do. After she became proficient at them, she went back to the class and did not experience any sort of abnormally high heart rate.
Now that the workhorse of the primary inspirators has been examined, the accessory inspirators will be briefly explained. The role of the accessory respiratory muscles is to assist the primary respiratory muscles in the effort to draw life-giving oxygen into the body. The way in which most of the accessory inspiratory muscles are attached to the body allows them to use the spinal column as an anchor point from which to pull because most of them have an attachment to the cervical spine or the head. Most of them also have an attachment somewhere on the rib cage or a structure around the rib cage.
While focusing on the muscular attachment to the spine or around it, if the given muscle contracts because the nervous system tells it to, the other end of the muscle will essentially elevate whatever is attached to it. In this case, it is the rib cage. This elevation of the rib cage helps to create a negative pressure within the thorax so that air will flow into the lungs.
The accessory inspiratory muscles are usually relatively small. That is why they are only an accessory to the process of inspiration. The majority of the work should be taken up by the diaphragm, which is meant to do the bulk of the work needed to breathe. As you will find out in Part 2 of this article series, the relationship of the accessory respiratory muscles to the primary respiratory muscles does not always stay within the physiological boundaries in which they were meant to function.
A Breath for Optimal Health
Since the very basics on how inspiration occurs have been covered, we will now explore the overall picture of respiration. According to Chek, for optimal breathing, the first two thirds of a breath should come from primarily diaphragmatic effort and the last third may come from accessory respiratory muscular effort. When broken down, optimal breathing will consist of:
- The diaphragm descending during the first two thirds of the inspiration phase. This can be seen because the abdominal wall will usually protrude out due to the displacement of the viscera from the diaphragm’s inferior movement.
- The chest rising during the last third of the inspiration phase due to accessory respiratory muscular effort.
For correct breathing, the nose should act as the primary entryway for air to travel into your body. When air is inhaled through the nose, it is swirled around through nasal hair as well as along passageways lined with a light layer of mucous that is an effective means to catch dust, bacteria and other tiny particles.
You have most likely noticed that often times throughout the day, one of your nostrils seems to be more dominant than the other. This is due to blood shifts. It has been indicated that when your left nostril is open, the right, more creative and intuitive side of your brain is more dominant. When the right nostril is more open, the left side of your brain is more dominant. This side of your brain has more to do with logic and intellect.
Yogis observed this thousands of years ago and practiced a sophisticated breathing pattern called alternate nostril breathing. In this type of breathing, they would intentionally change the air flow through the nostrils to balance their psychophysiology. In an article written by Roger Jahnke, he tells us that neuroscience has recently determined that alternate nostril breathing will in fact help balance out the right and left hemispheres of the brain, thus confirming what the yogis knew and practiced thousands of years ago.
It should be added that right nostril breathing stimulates the sympathetic nervous system and left nostril breathing stimulates the parasympathetic side of the autonomic nervous system.
Correct respiration also allows you a better opportunity to maintain a healthy back. One of the main mechanisms by which this happens is called the intra-abdominal pressure mechanism. (The scope of this article does not afford a discussion on the intra-abdominal pressure mechanism.) Another way in which optimal breathing promotes a healthy back is through an imbibition effect that takes place with the lumbar discs. As the diaphragm descends, it pushes down on the viscera, and because of the crura attachments, the resistance of the viscera may cause a slight decompressing effect on the lumbar vertebrae. The slight decompressing effect can allow for the intervertebral discs to experience a bit of a fluid exchange. The intervertebral discs generally become desiccated as people age, so any sort of fluid that pumps into them will help protect the back in the long run.
In this first part of this series, we discussed the essential role the diaphragm plays in the process of respiration as well as the diaphragm's relationship to the heart. We talked about the accessory inspiratory musculature and how they assist the diaphragm to bring life nourishing oxygen into the body. Covered briefly were some of the benefits offered as a result of optimal respiration, including improved visceral health and protection of the low back.
In Part 2 of this article series, we will examine common faulty breathing patterns as well as the detrimental effects of our modern world on our breathing. Negative effects on the body that result from faulty respiration will also be talked about. Most importantly, however, breathing exercises will be covered to enable you to start helping your clients pave their own road toward optimal health.
- Chek, Paul. Nutrition & Lifestyle Coaching Course, Level 1. C.H.E.K Institute. Encinitas, CA. 2002.
- Chek, Paul. Posture and Craniofacial Pain. Chapter in Chiropractic Approach to Head Pain. Wilkins & Williams.
- Chek, Paul. Scientific Back Training
- Chek, Paul. Scientific Balance Training - Part 3
- Chek, Paul. Scientific Core Conditioning
- Farhi, Donna. The Breathing Book. Henry Holt and Company Inc. 1996.
- Jahnke, Roger O.M.D. “Breathing exercises and Self Healing.” September 1, 2002. http://www.mercola.com/2001/feb/20/breathing.htm
- Kendall, Florence., Kendall McCreary, Elizabeth., Provance, Patricia. Muscles: Testing and Function. Fourth edition. Williams & Wilkins. 1993
- Pottenger, Francis M. Symptoms of Visceral Disease. Fifth edition. Mosby. 1938.
- Steindler, Arthur. Kinesiology: Of the Human Body. Charles C Thomas Publisher. 1955.
- Yuefang, Cen. Chinese Qigong Essentials. New World Press. 1996.