Breathing and Age-Related Health Conditions
The way that we breathe is intricately linked to how our bodies move and function. Many common breathing pattern dysfunctions (BPD) or altered breathing patterns are caused by stress, poor postural habits, and chronic pain. Being older can compound these issues: stressful life circumstances, chronic health conditions, and sleep disturbances can exacerbate existing faulty breathing patterns, thereby worsening existing conditions such as shoulder dysfunction, heart conditions, and incontinence.
When we breathe in an unbalanced or dysfunctional way, our bodies adapt with systemic symptoms such as raised shoulders, shallow (chest) breathing, teeth grinding and jaw clenching, headaches, chest tightness and reduced expansion of the diaphragm and thorax. Apical (upper chest) breathing patterns in particular affect posture, spinal stabilization, and are linked to low energy. This pattern involves elevating the collarbones while drawing in the abdomen and raising up the diaphragm.
As we get older, poor breathing and postural habits can affect our shoulder and thoracic (mid back) mobility. While common conditions such as shoulder and rotator cuff problems can be caused by injury (such as a fall), they can also be affected by posture, movement patterns, and breathing. Many people with shoulder problems can find some relief by working on their breathing patterns. Through focused breathing exercises, we can learn how to breathe in a balanced way, thus improving thoracic spine and shoulder mobility.
Assess Your Breathing: It is a good idea to assess if your breathing is balanced. Are you using one side of the rib cage more than the other? Begin by lying on your back, knees bent and if possible, place your hands on either side of your rib cage. You can do this in a seated (spine straight) position if needed. Breathe normally for a few breathes, noticing what part of your body rises and falls, inflates/deflates. Then breathe into your hands, feeling the expansion of the lower ribcage at the front and back. This a great way to determine if you are breathing more into one side of your body than the other. You can have a friend or family member help you with the supine or standing assessment.
Standing assessment: Stand with your back supported by a wall and with your hand on a support so that you keep your balance. Close your eyes and breathe normally. Then place on hand on your upper chest and one hand on your back. As you continue to breathe, lower the back hand down to back to your lower back to notice if you are breathing fully. Then, place one hand on your belly to see if you can breathe into your belly, feeling for the rise and fall.
This beginner breathing exercise for thoracic mobility is helpful for shoulder and thoracic dysfunction:
Begin on your back with the left knee bent and the leg turned inward slightly, with, the left rib cage pressed down slightly. On the right, allow your arm to extend behind you. Your lower spine should be flat, and the right shoulder blade slightly up. Inhale through the nose without allowing the rib cage to move up quickly, and then exhale fully, allowing the ribs to come down. Repeat on the other side. Focus on fully exhaling on each breath to reduce stimulation of the sympathetic nervous system and excess tightness of the supplemental muscles (back, chest and shoulders.)
This Love Your Age article also appears in Vital! Check it out for more great information on aging and health. http://www.vitalmagonline.com