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Posture and breathing go together as you can see in this medical illustration of the spine and ribs.

Posture And Breathing. What’s the connection?

Posture and breathing are intimately linked, and understanding this connection can help you improve both. While there’s no one-size-fits-all perfect posture for everyone, your posture can profoundly impact your breathing, and conversely, your breathing can influence your posture.

How does breathing affect posture?

When you inhale, the diaphragm lifts the rib cage and expands the chest cavity, allowing air to enter the lungs. The ribs are slightly separate as the rib cage externally rotates away from the hips.

Since the ribs are attached to different spine segments, this action elongates the spine, reducing pressure on the intervertebral discs and strengthening muscles in your torso. 

 

As deep breathing helps to down-regulate the nervous system, there is a reduction in tension in the body which can help you stand more upright. This same reduction in tension can also improve the spine’s and ribcage’s capacity to move more dynamically.

Check the Basics of Breathing for a more comprehensive explanation of breathing mechanics.

 

Chronic shallow breathing and posture

Shallow breathing can limit the range of diaphragm and lung capacity, leading to high-shouldered, chest-out, and neck-extended postures common in those with emphysema, asthma, and other respiratory problems.

 

 

There is a connection between shallow breathing and mental health 

 

Chronic breath-holding and shallow breathing can disturb the body’s oxygen-carbon dioxide balance, adversely affecting the person’s physical and mental well-being. Psychologically this disturbance in respiratory gasses can lead to anxiety and poor stress tolerance. A typical physical symptom is an increase in muscle tension and stiffness.

 

People with a more upbeat mental state tend to have a more upright posture, while those with a more gloomy mental state unintentionally slump forward.

This can create a negative loop, where shallow breathing, directly and indirectly, contributes to a slumped posture. Which then further contributes to shallow breathing.

 

How Does Posture Affect Breathing?

Most studies show a correlation between a more erect posture and the quality of respiratory gas exchange in a healthy population and patients with lung, heart, neuromuscular disease, or obesity.

This connection makes sense as a more erect posture allows for deeper and more efficient breathing by providing more room for the rib cage to rotate externally, allowing for optimal functioning of the lungs and diaphragm.

 

Muscles of inspiration diagram

Image Credit: Physiopedia

 

A more hunched-over position restricts rib cage movement, reducing lung capacity and diaphragmatic function. This requires the secondary breathing muscles (such as the sternocleidomastoid and the scalenus) to kick in. 

Using the secondary muscles is vital in brief recovery moments, as we’ll find out next. However, constantly relying on them to breathe often leads to neck and shoulder stiffness and tension. 

Recovery positions and breathing

For first-aid in asthma or shortness of breath, the go-to posture is to lean forward and place hands or elbows on your knees or hold onto something in front of you. 

 

Some might refer to this position as catching their breath.

 

The idea is to utilize the scapula and thoracic muscles to assist with inhalation, allowing for more rib expansion laterally and posteriorly. The positive response is likely due to an improved parasympathetic response and a temporary improvement in breathing mechanics using the secondary breathing muscles.

Recovery posture doesn’t necessarily have a positive impact on performance

The hand-on-elbow position can lead to better recovery regarding decreased heart rate, but it doesn’t necessarily translate to improved performance. Despite the recovery position being better for bringing the heart rate down than a more erect posture (a difference of 22 beats per minute), it doesn’t translate to better performance in the consequent bout of effort.

Likely, the decrease in heart rate is a sign of increased stroke volume instead of an indicator of complete recovery.

One last thing on recovery position and performance. Because the recovery position is highly individual, the best posture for recovery, especially for performance, is the one that works the best for you and your sport.

 

How to Improve Posture and Breathing

 

Training the spine with online Kinstretch class.

Specific breathing exercises

In a recent study conducted in 2022, researchers compared the effectiveness of Yoga and Pilates to a physiotherapist-led breathing intervention program for improving posture. The study found that a structured breathing exercise program with slow and controlled movements can be as effective as Yoga and Pilates for improving posture.

 

Try our quick Intro to Core class to see what we mean.

 

Cardiovascular exercise

Besides improving your breathing by improving your aerobic conditioning, you can strengthen your diaphragm when you emphasize nasal breathing during cardio. This applies regardless of whether you’re doing a Zone 2 workout or a high-intensity interval training (HIIT) session. However, the latter is significantly more challenging with nasal-only breathing.

Mindfulness is part of improving your posture and breathing.

Mindfulness practice 

Diaphragmatic breathing techniques in mindfulness practice can help reduce tension in tight, secondary breathing muscles while promoting an upright, tall posture. Focusing on the breath can also help alleviate stress and lead to an improvement in breathing and posture.

 

We’ve got a program for you..

We’ve created our supplemental Core Breathing Program to help you improve your breathing and posture. 

It’s 3-4 days a week of 15-minute sessions. 

Learn more here. 

 

References:

https://www.researchgate.net/publication/303752627_The_effect_of_three_different_positions_on_recovery_during_one_minute_running_intervals

https://journals.lww.com/acsm-tj/fulltext/2019/02150/effects_of_two_different_recovery_postures_during.1.aspx

https://bmcpulmmed.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s12890-018-0723-4#Tab2

Breath by James Nestor: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8950379/

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