A fitness expert says poor breathing patterns can lead to muscular and mood problems and shares exercises to identify poor patterns and reset them.

Breathing is easily taken for granted. As long as air moves in and out of our lungs, everything seems fine. But when the muscular action of breathing is altered due to stress, it can cause a variety of problems.

When we breathe, our neck and upper chest muscles should be relaxed.

Optimal breathing is driven by the diaphragm — a dome-shaped muscle behind the ribs in the middle of the torso. When we breathe, our neck and upper chest muscles should be relaxed.

But many of us use our neck, shoulder and upper chest muscles to breathe.

Stress Can Affect Breathing

Chronic stress can create an upper chest breathing pattern that gradually becomes the new normal. This can cause altered mood, decreased alertness, increased pain sensitivity, poor core stability and widespread trigger points throughout the neck and shoulders.

To put it plainly, breathing this way makes you feel worse. The good news is, re-establishing a good breathing pattern is relatively easy to do.

To discover if you are breathing optimally, try this breathing exercise: Sit in an upright chair facing a mirror with one hand on your upper abdomen and the other on your upper chest. Take a deep breath. Upon inhalation, your lower hand should move first as your abdomen pushes outward. Your upper hand should move out slightly as you finish inhaling. If your shoulders elevate, or your abdomen pulls in, you’re not breathing appropriately.

Breathing Exercise

To begin the test: Sit upright and place your hands at your sides.
To begin the exercise: Sit upright and place your hands at your sides.

If you do have an altered breathing pattern, this is a good breathing exercise to retrain yourself:

  1. Sit with an upright, tall posture. Place your hands at your sides with your index fingers at the bottom of your ribs (upper abdomen) and your thumbs around to your back.
  2. Take a breath in through your nose, breathing down and back so you feel expansion outward into your hands. Keep your shoulders relaxed.
  3. Breathe out slowly against pursed lips, as though exhaling through a straw. Aim to breathe out fully over 6 to 8 seconds. Be careful not to exhale too quickly to avoid light-headedness.
  4. Repeat for up to 30 breaths. Practice daily.

You may need additional exercises to correct other issues in your neck, shoulders and core, but re-establishing diaphragmatic breathing will have widespread positive effects.

You will feel more relaxed, refreshed and alert and help your core muscles work better.


Mike Bento is an advanced trainer at The Clubs at Charles River Park and Massachusetts General Hospital. He holds a master’s degree in human movement and is certified by the National Academy of Sports Medicine as a corrective exercise specialist and performance enhancement specialist.