General Advice

Breathing – Why is optimal breathing a big deal?

Dr. Caity Haniver (Osteopath)

Most of us never actually think about breathing.  

It happens AUTOMATICALLY about 20-24,000 times throughout our day with no conscious thought or intent. It becomes so automatic that many of us don’t FEEL where the air goes in our bodies during an inhale, or where the air leaves as we exhale.

We don’t even think about the roles of the breath on our performance or stress or our pain levels.

We don’t notice if we are breathing in through our nose or mouth, or whether these breaths are short or long.

We have no baseline to guide us as to whether we are taking more breaths than usual.

We are as they say, blissfully ignorant to the single most important function that keeps us alive as human beings.

Did you know that one of the best ways to improve chronic health problems, live a pain free life and maximise performance is to focus on how we as humans BREATHE.

In order to do this, we must focus on HOW we breathe, HOW we inhale and HOW we exhale.

Today I want to break down the importance of:

  1. Why the way we breathe MATTERS
  2. How the way we breath affects INJURY, PERFORMANCE and HEALTH
  3.  How the way we breath can alter our shape and posture as a human being.


In order to highlight disordered breathing, let’s establish an understanding of what successful breathing looks like (and no getting air in and out of the lungs alone does not qualify as breathing success in my opinion).

Optimal breathing enables the body to take in adequate oxygen (inhale) and get rid of carbon dioxide (exhale).

During inhalation, there is an active descending of the diaphragm (our main breathing muscle), the rib cage expands and the abdominal cavity and chest wall should also get larger as our diaphragm pushes down.

This contraction of the diaphragm causes the ribs and pelvis to rotate which will have a flow on affect to our hips, shoulders, knees, elbows, ankles and wrists.

WOW… Breathing really will move the entire body. 

During a breath in oxygen travels into the body from outside, usually (hopefully) through the nose, down the airway towards the lungs and then from there it is perfused into the bloodstream and travels around to cells that need it (all of them).

The same thing happens in almost reverse when we exhale.

Exhaling makes our abdominal cavity and rib cage compress, the diaphragm passively recoils and lifts back up and all of the carbon dioxide inside of us expels.

There is all kinds of geeky physiology I could share with you in regards to this but lets keep it relatively basic so this blog doesn’t go on for too long.

When we do breathe optimally, we are able to regulate the forces inside of our body which creates stability and rigidity (as required) internally and allows for movement variability in our skeleton throughout exercise and our daily movements and activities.

Okay so if the above is optimal – what is suboptimal or disordered breathing?!

The main one we see daily as osteopaths is what we will call “STRESS BREATHING”

This is when humans inhale predominantly using accessory muscles in the neck to”lift” the rib cage and suck air in, rather than using their diaphragm to expand the chest and ribcage.

Literally any muscle attached to the rib cage becomes a breathing muscle when oxygen demands are high.

This design assures our ability to breathe during any number of strenuous activities.

Given a choice between breathing enough and moving well, breathing always wins.

This also impacts our ability to move well when muscles that are typical movers become breathers!

This type of breathing should be utilised during hard aerobic activity and SHOULD NOT be the prime method for getting your oxygen in.

Yet, people WALK (yes WALK) into my office all the time that are using their neck, jaw and face muscles to get their oxygen in, rather than using that big diaphragm muscle they’ve got that literally exists to help them breath.

CRAZY how the body has ADAPTED to this, yet not SURPRISING.

If we don’t breathe we die, so we will prioritise breathing and actually getting oxygen in over EVERYTHING else.

IF that means using our neck and jaw and lifting our rib cage to get it, so be it, but we will DEFINITELY see systemic flow on affects from this breathing strategy.

The biggest flow on affect from a stress breathing strategy is the “INCOMPLETE EXHALE”.

This basically means that instead of getting all that carbon dioxide and other waste products out of our system, we only exhale about half of it, leaving half of it still in our lungs or body (Scarrrry right).

Also, breathing optimally (a full exhale) allows us to manage our stress system through breath and tap into the restorative branch of our nervous system to promote healing, pain reduction and other good things.

When we are not fully exhaling it is no wonder we all run around feeling stressed out and burnt out, as we are literally unable to access the branch of our nervous system that makes us feel calm, helps us chill out and heals our body.

If we are unable to access this branch of our nervous system our PERFOMANCE WILL SUFFER, our RECOVERY will suck and our PAIN is likely to be higher.

Sorry to be dramatic but its true. 


Okay but what does breathing have to do with our POSTURE?

Remember the part before where I said about the movements our whole body makes during breathing?

A breath in is like the ripple affect of a stone dropping in a still body of water, the smallest movement will reach all the way from the inside out.

Due to this breathing is almost synonymous will moving.

Posture is understood as the the position our body assumes in space in relationship to our surrounding environment.

However, posture is a 100% dynamic process (well it should be) and it is directly influenced by the breath.

When we are not breathing optimally, or we are using moving muscles for breathing, or not using our breathing muscles for breathing funny things can happen to our rib cage.

It is supposed to expand and compressed with every breath in and out, yet if we are not allowing this to happen due to our maladaptive breathing strategy it will become rigid and move less.

This will in turn affect all of the joints and parts of our body down the chain that are moved by respiration.. such as our pelvis, hips, shoulders etc (you get the picture now I hope).

These affected parts may move less too due to this breathing strategy, causing changes in joint position or the way we hold our body in space.. ie our POSTURE.


So I am stress-breathing non complete exhaler… WHAT DO I DO?!

To make any long lasting changes to your posture, we first need to re teach an optimal breathing strategy and then involve the brain and nervous system in order to make it more automatic.

The way I help people do this is through specific breath work.

It sounds boring lame and nerdy, but trust me it’s actually really really hard to do well, and the benefits are almost instant.

Positional breathing work can influence the abdominals, ribcage, spine and our organs while also diving deep into our nervous system via the full exhalation.

This full exhalation, taps into utilising the vagus nerve which directly passes through our diaphragm and can help us feel more chilled, less wound up and get us back on track to healing and performance.


Check out a little youtube clip I made below talking about one strategy you may be able to use in order to help start breathing a bit more optimally.

I did not do a good job at explaining the full exhale here, so make sure you if you try this you are aiming to get all the air out of you with every single exhale.

If you cough and splutter you are probably on the right track 😉

Alternatively,  book in to see one of our amazing osteopaths to get an assessment and start your own breathing protocols!



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