Physiotherapist Diane Rizzardo on the Importance of Breath

Words by Taylor McKay

Photography by Taylor McKay

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While our bodies are always doing their jobs—inhale, exhale, inhale, exhale—amidst the chaos of stressful, busy schedules, we can often lose awareness of our breath. In turn, we’re not doing our bodies (or minds) any favours. So we sat down with physiotherapist and marathon runner Diane Rizzardo to pick her brain about how we can become better breathers.

First off, why is deep breathing important?

On a simple physiological level, when you inhale fresh oxygen, you feed the tissues (muscles, heart, brain) through red blood cells. When you exhale, you rid the body of carbon dioxide.

What about the about the correlation between stress and breathing?

Yes, they are very connected. Chronic shallow breathing (also known as apical breathing) causes tension in the neck and shoulders. Your breathing rate and depth can actually change with your emotions. Think about what happens to your heart rate and breathing depth when you are scared, nervous, mad, or anxious. I bet if you saw yourself in a moment of frustration or anxiety, your shoulders would be up near your ears and you would be taking quick, shallow breaths as your heart rate quickened.

Day-to-day small stressors (waking up late, traffic, forgetting your keys) force your body to elicit the fight or flight response, which places stress on the body. This stress can build up over time and lead to a weakened immune system, increased blood pressure, anxiety, or depression. The good news is deep breathing can be a great coping mechanism to decrease stress.

So why don’t we naturally inhale deeply more often?

A major reason is ingrained societal triggers: it’s encouraged for men and women to have a flat stomach, which means not allowing the belly muscles to ever relax and expand fully.

Ahem, not too mention our skinny jeans don’t allow for much room…

Exactly! So whether it’s stress, being constantly on the go, or societal pressures affecting our subconscious, breathing correctly doesn’t always come naturally. We can start to improve this by creating an awareness, and incorporating breathing exercises into our morning, work, and nighttime routines.

Here are three simple breathing exercises suggested by Rizzardo.

Pilates expansive breathing (lateral costal breathing)

Once you get the hang of this technique while lying on the ground, try it seated—in the car at a stop light, or at your desk at work. Set an alarm at the office to remind yourself to check in with your posture and breathing once every hour.

To start out, though, lie on your back with your knees bent. With your low back in neutral, tip your pelvis to find a position where your back muscles soften. Then check in with your rib cage—are your lower ribs connected with the floor under you? If not, think about bringing your breastbone down to let the back of your lower ribs connect with the ground below you.

  1. Inhale—think about your ribs expanding wide. Exhale.
  2. Inhale—think about the back of your ribs connecting to the floor. Exhale.
  3. Inhale—think about your diaphragm moving towards your feet. Exhale.
  4. Inhale—think about breathing into your full ribcage (like a balloon filling up equally), your shoulders staying relaxed and away from your ears. Exhale.

Balloon breathing

Start in the same position as lateral costal breathing—or if you can’t let your belly relax in this position, try lying on your back with your knees out to the sides. If you feel strain on your groin here, place a pillow, blankets, or yoga blocks under your knees to allow them to relax out to the sides and be supported. If you feel strain on your low back, try placing a small, rolled towel under you. This position helps you release tension through the belly.

  1. Wrap a Theraband around the lower part of your ribcage with just a small amount of tension.
  2. Inhale, feel the band stretch.
  3. Exhale, feel the band loosen.

Tabletop hangout

Kneel on your hands and knees, with your arms under your shoulders and your knees directly under your hips. Imagine your spine being long—think about tucking an orange under your chin to find length along the back of the neck.

    1. Inhale through your nose, expand your lateral ribs, and let your belly hang soft.
    2. Exhale through your mouth with slight abdominal engagement. Think about your abdominals slightly pulling up and in. Focus on softening your belly and letting it hang in full relaxation on every inhale.

Breathe deep, breathe well.

This interview has been edited and condensed.