Breathe in, breathe out—seems simple, right? If you’re like most people, you don’t think too much about your breathing. However, the way you breathe can make a big difference in your overall health. There are two main types of deep breathing: chest breathing and belly breathing. Most people are chest breathers, but belly breathing is actually the more efficient way to breathe. Here’s a look at the differences between chest and belly breathing, and how belly breathing could help improve your health (3).
How Breathing Works
Your respiratory system is made up of your lungs, diaphragm, intercostal muscles and a network of airways that transport oxygen to your blood.
When you breathe in, or inhale, your diaphragm contracts and moves downward. This increases the space in your chest cavity and causes your lungs to expand. As your lungs expand, they draw air in through your nose or mouth.
The air that you breathe in is mostly nitrogen and oxygen. Oxygen enters your blood through tiny air sacs called alveoli. From there it’s carried to the rest of your body.
Your respiratory system also helps to get rid of carbon dioxide, a waste product that’s produced when your cells use oxygen. When you exhale, or breathe out, your diaphragm relaxes and moves upward, pushing the carbon dioxide-rich air out of your lungs.
What Happens When You Take A Deep Breath?
Every so often we take deep breaths. Whether it’s just a big sigh or a deep inhale during a yoga class, what happens then can tell you whether your chest breathing or belly breathing.
If you take a deep breath and your shoulders go up, you’re a chest breather. When you chest breathe, only the upper part of your lungs expands. This can lead to shallow breathing and doesn’t efficiently move oxygen through your body.
Deep belly breathing, on the other hand, involves the entire respiratory system. When you inhale deeply, your diaphragm contracts and moves downward, your ribs expand outward and your abdominal muscles push outward. This allows your lungs to fully expand and fill with air (3).
How can you tell if you’re a chest or belly breather? Here are some visible differences between the two:
- Chest breathing – shoulders go upwards, your body elongates as you inhale. Shoulders come back down, chest contracts as you exhale.
- Belly breathing – belly comes outward, lungs expand as you inhale. Belly goes inward, rib cage contracts as you exhale.
What Causes You To Breathe The Wrong Way?
If you’ve just realized that you’re a chest breather, don’t worry – it’s not something that you need to be ashamed of. In fact, most people are chest breathers and don’t even realize it.
There are a few different things that can contribute to chest breathing:
The fast-paced modern life comes with a lot of stress. And when we’re stressed, our breathing tends to become shallower and more rapid. This can lead to chest breathing.
People who suffer from anxiety often take short, shallow breaths that come from the chest. This type of breathing can aggravate anxiety symptoms and make them worse.
Sitting or standing up straight may not be something you think about often, but it can have a big impact on your breathing. When you have poor posture, it can restrict the movement of your diaphragm and make it difficult to take deep breaths. This can lead to chest breathing.
People who work desk jobs or spend a lot of time hunched over electronic devices are especially prone to poor posture and chest breathing.
Smoking is one of the worst things you can do for your respiratory system. Not only does it damage your lungs, but it also encourages chest breathing. This is because smoking narrows your airways and makes it difficult to take deep breaths.
Carrying around extra weight can make it difficult to breathe deeply. This is because the extra weight can put pressure on your diaphragm and make it harder for it to contract and move downward. As a result, you may find yourself breathing more often.
Breathing polluted air can irritate your respiratory system and make it difficult to breathe deeply.This is especially true for people who live in cities with high levels of smog and other types of pollution.
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How To Breathe Using Your Belly
Now that you know the difference between chest breathing and belly breathing, as well as the causes of chest breathing, it’s time to practice how to breathe correctly.
- Step 1 – Lie flat on your back on a comfortable surface. Bend your knees and place your feet flat on the ground.
- Step 2 – Place one hand on your upper chest and the other on your stomach just below your rib cage.
- Step 3 – Breathe in gently through your nose, allowing your stomach to expand as you inhale. The hand on your chest shouldn’t move, but the hand on your stomach should rise.
- Step 4 – Tighten your stomach muscles and exhale through your mouth. The hand on your stomach should move in as you exhale.
- Step 5 – Repeat the process several times, taking deep, slow breaths.
The Benefits Of Belly Breathing
There are several benefits of belly breathing:
When you’re feeling stressed, your body goes into fight-or-flight mode. This increases your heart rate and blood pressure and makes it more difficult to breathe.
Belly breathing can help reverse these effects by activating on the parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for rest and digestive functions (4).
Easing Respiratory Conditions
Belly breathing is often used as a treatment for respiratory conditions such as asthma, bronchitis and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) (1).
More Efficient Breathing
Belly breathing is a more efficient way to breathe because it allows your lungs to fully expand and fill with air (4). This means that more oxygen enters your blood and is carried to the rest of your body.
Strengthening The Diaphragm
Belly breathing also helps strengthen your diaphragm. The diaphragm is a muscle that helps you breathe. When it’s strong and functioning properly, it can help improve your overall respiratory health (4).
Strengthening Core Muscles
The core muscles are a group of muscles that support your spine and help you maintain good posture. They include the abdominal muscles, the muscles around your spine and the pelvic floor muscles (4). Belly breathing helps strengthen these muscles.
Lowering Heart Rate And Blood Pressure
Belly breathing can also help lower your heart rate and blood pressure. When you’re stressed, your body goes into fight-or-flight mode. This causes your heart rate and blood pressure to rise (4).
Deep belly breathing helps counteract this response and can help you feel calm and relaxed.
Belly breathing also has a positive effect on digestion. When you’re stressed, your digestive system doesn’t work as efficiently. Deep belly breathing can help relieve stress and allow your digestive system to function properly (4).
Reducing Oxygen Demand
Belly breathing can also help to reduce the demand for oxygen. When you’re stressed, your body uses more oxygen than it does when you’re relaxed. This can lead to shortness of breath and an irregular heartbeat.
Belly breathing may reduce the demand for oxygen and can improve your overall respiratory health (4).
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The Bottom Line
Belly breathing is a more efficient and effective way to breathe. It has many benefits, including promoting relaxation, reducing pain and easing respiratory conditions. Deep belly breathing can also help lower your heart rate and blood pressure.
You can try belly breathing by placing one hand on your upper chest and the other on your stomach. Breathe in through your nose, allowing your stomach to expand. Then, exhale through your mouth, tightening your stomach muscles. Repeat this process several times, taking deep, slow breaths.
This article is intended for general informational purposes only and does not address individual circumstances. It is not a substitute for professional advice or help and should not be relied on to make decisions of any kind. Any action you take upon the information presented in this article is strictly at your own risk and responsibility!
- COPD (2020, mayoclinic.org)
- Effectiveness of diaphragmatic breathing for reducing physiological and psychological stress in adults: a quantitative systematic review (2019, nih.gov)
- Effects of Diaphragmatic Breathing on Health: A Narrative Review (2020, nih.gov)
- Diaphragmatic Breathing (2022, clevelandclinic.org)