The big culprit: your posture
Most workers spend hours sitting, hunched toward one kind of screen or another. In this setup,
- the shoulders round forward, collapsing the chest and rib cage.
- The neck juts forward.
- the muscles in the front of the upper torso and upper back/neck--for example, your pectorals and upper trapezius--tighten up.
- the muscles you need for good posture in the middle back--for instance, your rhomboids--stretch and get weak.
- your hip flexors tighten while the glutes and hamstrings weaken. The tight hip flexors pull on the lower spine and tighten the muscles in the lower back. This then causes the abdominal muscles to stretch and weaken. The end result is often anterior pelvic tilt.
The posture and breath connection
Here's how breathing is supposed to work, according to the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute:
- The abdominal muscles relax while your diaphragm contracts downward, pushing all your guts out of the way.
- Your intercostal muscles contract to expand your rib cage, lowering the air pressure in your lungs and creating a vacuum in the chest cavity.
- Air flows through your nose and mouth in response to the vacuum.
- The intercostal muscles and diaphragm relax while the abdominal muscles contract, pushing air out of the lungs.
Now, if you're hunched over your desk for hours, what happens? The intercostal muscles and diaphragm can't contract well to create a good vacuum--with the abdomen compressed, your organs flat out can't get out of the way. You don't take in nearly as much air as your lungs actually can hold. Your weak abs also do a sucky job pushing what air you get back out. The amount of oxygen you receive thus is less than optimal. In fact, a 2006 study from the American Academy of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation showed that crappy posture (slumping) produced the worst lung capacity and expiratory flow compared to normal sitting and a posture designed to mimic standing spinal alignment. Rene Cailliet, former director of the department of physical medicine and rehabilitation at the University of Southern California, asserts that the reduction in lung capacity can be as much as 30 percent.
Without enough O2, you're at risk for issues like fatigue and even stress on your heart. And when your heart and lungs are stressed, that can activate a more overall stress response through the body, elevating cortisol. Elevated cortisol is associated with a host of conditions, such as weight gain, mood swings and trouble sleeping. It also links to a shutdown of the executive functions of the brain, meaning you can forget about great decision making or real focus.
How to get yourself to breathe the way nature intended
If you're not used to breathing properly anymore, you have to retrain yourself what it feels like. Here's a good, basic diaphragmatic breathing exercise, as described by the University of Georgia, that I used as a vocal major and teach to my music students:
- Lie down on your back. You can have your legs straight or bent or on a pillow, whichever is most comfortable for you.
- Let your chest open naturally, shoulder blades in contact with the floor, and place one hand on your abdomen just below your rib cage. Place the other hand on your chest.
- Inhale slowly. Focus on your abdomen coming up and pressing against your hand. The other hand on your chest should stay still.
- Exhale smoothly, tightening your abdominal muscles. Imagine you're trying to make a candle flame flicker but not go out. Feel the pressure on the hand over your abdomen decrease.
You should start by doing this exercise 5 to 10 minutes at a time 3 to 4 times a day. When you get really good at it, increase the time and do it sitting up against a wall or in a chair with good support. Then challenge yourself to do it without any support. You'll get even better results if you do other exercises like rows, hip flexor stretches, planks and bridges to get strong and correct the postural imbalances that inhibit the breath. After all, you want to treat the cause, not the symptom. The strength gain might take time, but the effort is well worth it.