The Breathing Process and How It Can Enhance Exercise

Enhance Your Therapeutic Exercise

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Understanding the mechanics of your breathing is not as geeky as it sounds, and it may enhance your efforts at pain relief. In fact, a 2017 study published in BMC Musculoskeletal Disorders acknowledged that breathing exercises, such as those done in yoga classes, is one of several holistic methods that may affect the way you perceive pain. The researchers also say that breathing and similar practices may affect disability.

Breathing may enhance the following pain therapies:

Each of these methods either employ or may be greatly enhanced by a basic understanding of what happens "under the hood" so to speak, during the process of inhalation and exhalation.

The process of breathing involves the exchange of gases, namely, oxygen and carbon dioxide that occurs between you, in particular, the cells of your body, and the outside environment, which is the air. This exchange happens in the lungs. 

In all, breathing has two components:

  • Ventilation, or movement of oxygen into, and carbon dioxide, out of your lungs.
  • Circulation, or transporting the oxygen taken into the body during ventilation to where it is needed in the body.

In terms of how breathing can enhance your therapeutic back exercise program or your successful participation in a pro-active holistic therapy, it's the ventilation component that takes center stage.

Ventilation also has two components. These are the mechanical processes of inhalation, or taking a breath, and exhalation, or letting it out. Without inhalation and exhalation, breathing cannot occur.

And in case you've forgotten from grade school science, when you inhale, you're taking the gas, oxygen, into the cells of your body; when you exhale, you're releasing the gas, carbon dioxide, out into the environment.

Inhalation is an largely an active process that involves muscle contraction, as well as the storing of potential energy in your lungs.

Exhale, on the other hand, is mostly passive. Your muscles relax, and the stored energy in your lungs is released via what is known as lung recoil.

Breathing Muscles that Develop Your Core

Certain trunk and core muscles participate in the breathing process, as well. You might say they do double-duty as both posture and breathing support. These most important of these muscles are:

  • The diaphragm muscle, which is the principal muscle of breathing, contracts in order to take air into the lungs, and it relaxes in order to let it out again. When the diaphragm contracts, it moves down from the bottom of your rib cage towards your abdominal region. This makes more space, and creates a vacuum, inside the rib cage, which, as we discussed, draws the air into the lungs. Associated with the inhale, of course, is an expansion of the lungs.
    • When you exhale, the diaphragm is actually relaxing; it is automatically pulled back up to its starting place at the bottom of your ribs as the natural  "elastic recoil" of the lungs and rib cage expels out the previously inhaled air.
  • The abdominal muscles are considered secondary breathing muscles. They assist with exhalation by further pushing air out of your lungs. And when you take air in, your abdominal muscles stretch to allow more space in your trunk for the diaphragm as it moves downward. One body alignment technique that makes use of this movement is called the drawing-in maneuver.
  • Intercostal muscles, which are sets of criss-crossing muscles located in between ribs expand the volume in your rib cage when you inhale. This allows the lungs to fill up with more air.

While other trunk and core muscles participate in the breathing process, as well, the diaphragm, abs and intercostals are the most valuable players.

Circulation, Muscles, and Exercise

As mentioned earlier, circulation happens when oxygen is transported all over the body, and when carbon dioxide is collected and removed, also from the body. Like ventilation, circulation happens in the lungs.

But circulation would not be possible without the pumping action of the heart, which receives blood from your body and pumps it to your lungs; the heart then collects the blood from the lungs and pumps it back to the body. Other physiological processes are at work during circulation, as well.

So the next time you breathe in or out while you're exercising, consider the way your lungs, rib cage volume, diaphragm, abs, and intercostals participate. Also think about the working muscles, located all over your body, pumping blood, and therefore oxygen and carbon dioxide, to and from the heart and lungs.

Being aware of and working in harmony with the process of breathing starts with your basic understanding of the physiology. Applying that knowledge may be just the ticket that fast tracks your pain relief efforts during exercise.

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Article Sources

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  • Kendall, F. P., et. al. Muscles Testing and Function with Posture and Pain. 3rd. Baltimore, Maryland: Williams & Wilkins, 1983.