Monthly Archives: April 2016

Breathing: You’re Doing it Wrong

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Group of three friends breathing deep fresh air on the beach

That’s right. We are going to talk about breathing.

That thing you’ve been doing since you were born.

That one thing that if you don’t do it you, you know…die.

Yes, breathing is a basic function of the body that we perform without thinking. However, breathing is the foundation for many aspects of our health and fitness. Dysfunctional breathing yields a poor foundation. And, just like you cannot build your dream house on a shaky foundation, you cannot start to improve your health until you optimize your breathing.

Just as a house built on a shaky foundation will crumble, dysfunctional breathing will eventually manifest itself in the form of nagging aches and pains, injuries, or a simple lack of progress.

So, as simple as it sounds, lets dive in and see what, exactly, is in a breath.

 

Breathing and Stress

 

Well, if you haven’t gotten the point already, breathing properly is kind of important. Breathing has a significant effect on our mood, posture, energy, and physical performance. Much of this is based on the very close relationship between breathing and stress.

Stress yields dysfunctional breathing, and dysfunctional breathing yields stress.

It’s an ugly, perpetual cycle.

Many of us fall into this cycle and it adversely effects our bodies. Dysfunctional breathing wreaks havoc on our posture and our ability to move properly. As a result, some of us end up looking like one of those half-man/half-ape guys on the evolution of man chart.

You know, the guy with rounded shoulders, a little bit of a hunchback, and a head that’s jutted forward. Others, end up looking like that bro at the gym with Permanently Flexed Lat Syndrome. (That guy who walks around with his chest puffed out like some baboon putting on a mating display.)

Now, just because you don’t look like either of these characters doesn’t mean you’re in the clear. Dysfunctional breathing may also be manifesting itself in the form of aches and pains in your back, neck, or shoulders, tendonitis, numbness in your arms, poor sleep quality, or just plain stress.

 

Don’t Breathe Like This

So, where are we going wrong?

Well, essentially we need to relax more. Chill out.

The problem is, many of us truly don’t know how. Our breathing patterns prevent it. They keep us bound-up and stressed 24/7. Some simply can’t take a full breath, while others can’t fully exhale. Many breathe through their chest, neck, and shoulders, causing accessory breathing muscles to do all the work.

These dysfunctional breathing patterns are messing with our heads…seriously.

Our breathing patterns effect the function of our nervous system. The aforementioned breathing patterns tend to unconsciously activate the excitatory branch of our nervous system, the “fight or flight” branch. In this state, we are, essentially, constantly up-tight and on-edge.

There are certain times when this state is needed, e.g., working out, playing sports, running away from a rabid bear. However, often times we find ourselves in this state when it is not ideal, e.g., sitting at your desk, laying down to go to sleep, or driving home from work (especially if you’ve just been cut off by Corvette guy with that ridiculous vanity plate).

 

Breathe Like This

Now the question remains…

How can you get out of that up-tight state and chill out when you need to?

Simply by breathing the way you are designed to, by using your diaphragm.

Diaphragmatic breathing helps us shift from that excitatory state towards a more chill, relaxed state.   It helps to calm and center our bodies, increasing concentration and boosting confidence. Diaphragmatic breathing shifts you to a state in which your heart rate and blood pressure are lowered and muscle tension, anger, and frustration are reduced.

Sounds freaking fantastic, right?

Of course it does. So this is how you get there…

Practice.

Yes, we talkin’ bout practice.

It takes practice to learn how to properly utilize your diaphragm during respiration. But, learning how to do so will allow you to switch out of that excitatory state when needed. And, with enough practice, you will begin properly utilizing your diaphragm subconsciously.

 

Try This

Here’s your assignment. Perform the following exercise twice per day for 10 breaths each time. I would recommend a short, midday meditation period and before bed.

 

  1. Lie flat on your back on the floor, with your feet flat against the wall, and knees and hips bent to 90 degrees. (You may also lie flat on your back, with your knees bent to 90 degrees and feet flat on the floor)
  2. Place one hand on your chest and the other over your belly button. When you inhale, the hand on the belly should rise higher than the one on the chest. Be sure that you are completely relaxed through the shoulders and neck. If you are tight through your neck, try placing a pad under the back of your head.
  3. Once in position, begin by blowing all your air out, feeling your rib cage subtly move down and in.
  4. From this exhaled position, place your tongue on the roof of you mouth and inhale through your nose, feeling the belly rise, as well as expansion though your sides and low back. Keep inhaling for a 5 count. (Essentially you want 360 degrees of expansion through your midsection without your chest rising significantly.)
  5. Hold this full breath for a 2-4 seconds.
  6. Slowly exhale through the mouth for 10 seconds. Make sure you blow all of the air out, feeling you abdominals engage toward the end.
  7. Hold the full exhale for a 2-4 seconds.
  8. Repeat steps 3-5.

 

Other tips:

  • If the 5 second inhale and 10 second exhale is too lengthy in the beginning, start with a 3 second inhale and 6 second exhale, then slowly work your way up.
  • Once you have the hang of this, try breathing into a balloon. Perform your 5 second inhale, then exhale your entire breath forcefully into the balloon. Perform two more breath cycles then empty the balloon and perform two more sets of 3 breaths.

To some this may sound simple, to others overwhelming. Give it a shot and you’ll be amazed at the difference this will make.

It’s time to build your foundation. So, take a deep breath, chill out, and relax.

Managing Stress

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Female manager doing her job in office and looks frustrated massaging her head

Stress.

It comes at us from all directions, in many different forms. We are constantly subjected to it physically, mentally, and emotionally.

Sometimes it’s good, sometimes it’s bad. Sometimes we have it under control. Sometimes it controls us.

At some point, we all learn to live with it. Yet, rarely do people know how to actually manage it.

What if I told you that stress may be the biggest obstacle standing between you and your health and fitness goals?

Stress, itself, is an inevitability. However, the amount of stress you place on your body and how you are able to handle it will ultimately determine whether you reach your peak in health and fitness, or end up a sick and dysfunctional mess.

 

More Than a Feeling

Stress is more than a feeling. It’s more than a mental thing. In general, stress is anything that disrupts the body’s homeostasis.

Yep, time for a high school science class review.

Homeostasis is essentially what keeps us alive. It is a regulatory process that maintains stable conditions within the body, keeping body functions, such as body temperature, blood pressure, or pH balance, within a certain range.

Why is this important?

Your body requires energy to regulate temperature, blood pressure, blood pH, and perform all of its other functions. If any of these levels surpass the specific range, the energy demands for your body to sustain those levels will be too high to survive.

So, how does the body maintain homeostasis under stress?

 

Stress Response

Back in the 1930’s an Austrian guy named Hans Selye, discovered that the body responds to all types of stress in a similar manner. The body’s effort to maintain homeostasis under all different stressors is known as the stress response. Selye discovered that the body responded the same to physical, mental, and emotional stress, and that they all have the same effect on the body.

This stress response is absolutely essential to our survival. This “fight or flight” response is what ensures we have enough energy to overcome a particular stressor.

It’s what kicks you into that extra gear when you’re being chased by a rabid bear. Or, more realistically, it’s what allows you to knock out a great training session in the gym.

However, we don’t just simply activate this response when we are under the physical stress of a hard workout or running away from a large, angry animal.  Many of us activate this stress response far more frequently.   When we are trying to meet a deadline at work, studying for an exam, or fighting with our significant others, we are often calling upon this stress response to get us through. In these instances, instead of saving us from that ravenous bear, this chronic activation of the stress response is slowly breaking us down.

 

How Stress is Affecting You

Anytime we subject ourselves to a particular stressor, our bodies will adapt to maintain homeostasis and minimize or avoid future stress.   This process is known as allostasis. While, the term isn’t that important for you to remember, it is important for you to understand how allostasis affects your body, for better and for worse.

 

The Good

Our body’s response to stress is behind any gains or improvement in our performance or fitness.

Let’s use weight lifting as an example.

Obviously, lifting weights places a stress on your muscles, as well as your skeleton, connective tissue, and nervous system. The body’s first, short-term response is to release powerful hormones to provide energy to the working muscles and increase force production.

Without this response, you’ll end up with a complete weightlifting fail. Either your muscle cells would run out of energy, or worse, your muscle fibers, tendons, or ligaments could tear under the strain of the weight.

After your workout, the body has a second, long-term response. To avoid or minimize that same stress in the future, the body tries to increase protein synthesis to make your muscles bigger and stronger. This way, the next time you workout, that same weight will easier to lift, thus placing less stress on the body.

 

The Bad and The Ugly

While increasing strength and putting on a little muscle mass might be a desired response to stress for you, it is important to remember that your body really doesn’t care what you want. As harsh as that sounds, the body is truly only wired to maintain homeostasis and minimize stress in the short-term. It does not consider long-term repercussions.

On that note, let’s illustrate the bad side of stress using the adaptation of your body to high blood pressure.

You may very well know that stress plays a role in raising your blood pressure.   This occurs whether you are placing your body under physical stress during a workout, or mental and emotional stress at other times throughout the day.

When people subject themselves to stressors throughout the day in the form of poor nutrition, mental stress, lack of sleep, etc, it results in chronically elevated blood pressure. The combination of chronically elevated blood pressure and levels of various stress hormones can have some devastating effects.

The body’s response is to make the walls of your blood vessels thicker and stronger to be able to handle the increased pressure. This makes the blood vessels more rigid and narrow, leaving them susceptible to the build-up of plaque. This, in time, can lead to atherosclerosis or cardiovascular disease.

To make matters worse, if blood pressure is elevated frequently, over-time the body may recognize this as the new norm. When this occurs, the hardened arteries and high blood pressures remain, even after the mental or emotion stress has subsided.

 

Managing Stress

Let’s face the facts…

You are going to experience physical, mental, and emotional stress in some combination on a daily basis. It is inevitable.

On one hand you are going to experience stress meeting deadlines at work, cramming for an exam at school, or perhaps while dealing with family or relationship issues.

On the other hand, you may be subjecting yourself to physical stress, at the same time, by working out several times every week.

While the latter may seem better for your body than the former, it is important to understand that we cannot simply concern ourselves with the type of stress, but also the amount and frequency.

Even too much “good” stress can be harmful and break your body down overtime.

How then, if this is all inevitable, do we manage stress?

Well, unfortunately, it’s not a problem simply solved over night. It takes time and effort to learn how to manage the stress you experience in your everyday life.

This post will spearhead a series of posts to come in which we will address several way by which you can improve your ability to handle stress.

So, if you’re looking to improve performance, finally get the sexy look you’ve wanted, improve general health and wellness, or are simply stressed-out on a regular basis, check back for the posts to come!