The diaphragm. Famous for its essentiality to deep breathing, helping singers hit those high notes - but perhaps you’ve not realised its value beyond that? Maybe you’re a BBQ fanatic and immediately think of a great steak. Well, the diaphragm is not only important for singers or beef lovers, it’s important for anyone who breathes - in which case we’ll stay tuned…
What makes the diaphragm so important to us?
The diaphragm is a thin muscle sitting just at the bottom of our ribs, below the lungs, separating our chest from our belly. A mostly ignored muscle, until it needs attention. Feeling out of breath? Getting indigestion? Suffering from back pain? In those situations, have you ever considered the diaphragm’s role?
If the above is happening persistently, we recommend visiting your GP or chatting to a physiotherapist to relieve you and your diaphragm. But there’s a lot we can do to look after our diaphragm before it demands our attention and help improve our overall well-being. Win, win.
The primary function of the diaphragm is breathing, by moving up and down it helps the lungs inhale and exhale air correctly. But if our diaphragm is contracted, and the movements are reduced, not only can it impact our breathing, but our postural and digestive health too. Because the diaphragm regulates pressure in our chest and abdomen, which allows impulses to pass along the vagus nerve, which connects the brain to the digestive system. It’s also connected to our flexibility and movement of our core and back.
A contracted diaphragm can go unnoticed, but restoring its function, and expanding the muscle again will have noticeable benefits.
How to look after our diaphragm
Looking after our diaphragm means learning to breathe, something we of course know how to do, but unhealthy habits like smoking, living a sedentary life and prolonged stress can impact our breathing ability. Getting caught in this involuntary breathing dysfunction means our lungs get into a habit of only filling with enough air to stay alive, rather than filling up properly, fully oxygenating, mobilising and refreshing our entire body.
Don’t overthink it though, that can exacerbate difficulty filling our lungs, plus it’s quite simple to strengthen that diaphragm and make full use of those airbags. Find a comfy spot, on the floor, a yoga mat or the bed and lay down with your knees bent. Then place one hand on the chest and the other on the belly. And take the following steps:
Before we start, breathe as normal. When we’re not used to diaphragmatic breathing, it’s likely our chest will rise as we inhale and fall as we exhale - try it out. That hand on the belly likely stays fairly still. That means the diaphragm is staying still while we’re breathing, or was contracting on the inhale preventing the lungs from filling to their full capacity.
So, we need to apply some control to our breathing or focus on the movement. Keeping our hands where they are, think about the belly as a balloon. When we inhale we want to inflate the balloon, which we can see by our hand rising. As we exhale, that hand will fall again as we deflate the balloon. This time, the hand on our chest should stay fairly still, which shows our diaphragm is helping us make the most of the space inside. Essentially, on an inhale, as our belly rises, our diaphragm moves down giving the lungs more space to fill up. As we exhale and the belly falls, the diaphragm moves up pushing the air out. Breathing like this is more satisfying, and a good way to keep the muscle in shape.
Once we’re familiar with breathing this way, it’ll become more natural to do in our everyday life. For example, as we're doing the washing up, standing at the sink, or at our desks while we’re working, taking a moment for mindful breathing that’ll help us refocus, destress and support our posture. And if we’re working out, lifting weights or power walking through the park diaphragmatic breathing can support the physical effort.
For specific training: practise increasing the control over our breathing while doing the same exercise. Try inhaling and inflating the belly to a count of 3, hold it for a second before exhaling and deflating the belly for 3 (this is one full breath). Before the next breath, wait for 3 counts and try to squeeze your belly further to move that diaphragm towards the ribs. Practice this routine 5-10 times.
And if you’re already enjoying the benefits of these simple exercises, targeted training such as yoga or pilates can offer multiple ways to further enhance the flexibility of your diaphragm and further control and improve your breathing.
A closer look: who knew there was so much to breathing well, and how beneficial that thin muscle can be for us when taking care of it? Not only can it improve our breathing, and help our lung capacity, it can help us destress in the office, it can help us refocus when feeling frazzled, and even be a quiet moment for relaxation. So what are you waiting for?