Breathing comes so naturally—most of the time—that it might be the last thing you think about improving. But improper breathing can cause a variety of problems, says Dr. Rabih Bechara of the American Lung Association: In addition to potential effects on your skeletal system, brain function, and bowels, it can also negatively affect your mood and disrupt a healthy sleep pattern, leading to an even longer list of health issues.
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Even if you're not at risk for respiratory issues caused by asthma, COPD, or heart disease, environmental factors—like high humidity, cold air, and pollutants—can make it difficult to breathe correctly. And while there are indications of improper breathing that you can watch for, they're easy to miss (or misidentify). "There are many signs that may alert someone that they are not breathing properly," explains Dr. Bechara. "Some include increase in their stress level, especially if there are no obvious reasons for such; higher blood pressure; having less energy and feeling tired more than usual; and having neck pains and aches in the morning without obvious structural cause."
Luckily, better breathing is something you can practice. If you think your technique could be interfering with your health, set aside time each day to focus on your breath using three techniques, says Dr. Bechara. "Breathe through the nose, and not the mouth—the air gets filtered, warmed, and humidified, and as such, the windpipe and lungs avoid irritation," he says. "Use the diaphragm more than the chest muscles during inhalation, [which] allows the base of the lungs to expand, too; and practice rhythmic as compared to erratic patterns." He suggests practicing several times a day, lining up your focused breathing with another activity—like mealtime—as a reminder, until it becomes a habit.
In addition to a regular breathing practice, says Dr. Bechara, other conscious habits can help improve your breathing—like staying at a healthy weight, eating a balanced diet, and avoiding smoking or secondhand smoke. The way you stand and sit can make a difference, too: "Assume good posture," says Bechara. "In doing so, the chest and the thoracic region are able to fully expand. Your rib cage and diaphragm will also be able to fully expand and increase the range of motion on the front side of your body." One last tip: Be aware of where your breath is coming from, Dr. Bechara adds—better breathing comes from using your diaphragm more than your chest muscles to inhale.