Stand up straight and realize who you are, that you tower over your circumstances.”
– Maya Angelou
What contributes to your poor posture?
Is it sitting too long at your desk? Do you have mom posture from carrying around your adorable, but heavy baby all day long? Do you commute for long distances in your car? Are you an athlete that trains hard but forgets to stretch? Do you carry around a heavy backpack daily? Are you glued to your phone? Do you have consistent neck or pack pain? Do you feel stuck?
No matter what is bringing your posture into its forward slump, there is one muscle that is highly connected to your posture, yet easily forgotten. The Diaphragm.
The diaphragm is a flat muscle that sits as a dome shape and lies in between our thoracic cavity and our abdominal cavity. When we inhale it lowers to make room for the oxygen entering our lungs. The lung expansion means our rib cage expands laterally, then when we exhale the rib cage narrows and the diaphragm returns to its resting position. This is called horizontal breathing. Did you know approximately 9 out of 10 people do not breathe horizontally, but vertically. Vertical breathing recruits your neck muscles for inhalation. These neck muscles, namely the scalenes and sternocleidomastoid, are supposed to be accessory breathing muscles not the most active ones. Learning to breathe with your diaphragm is the key to unlocking all that is keeping you stuck in your poor posture.
How does the diaphragm unlock your posture?
The diaphragm improves mobility and stability of the trunk
The typical way we are told to fix our posture is to stand up straight, lift your head, and throw your shoulders back. To maintain this position is very fatiguing.
Another common way we are told to improve posture is by strengthening our back muscles and stretching our anterior chest and shoulder muscles. This approach is not wrong, but neither is it complete. The amazing thing about the diaphragm is that you can make your posture much more efficient when using it properly. So relax those shoulders a bit. Diaphragmatic breathing works on both the mobility of your thoracic cage through rib movement and the strength of your core due to its position as the roof of the core. Its activity works in conjunction with the transverse abdominus, internal and external obliques, quadratus lumborum, and the pelvic floor muscles to provide for more stability in the trunk. Poor posture reduces your lung capacity by 30 percent but learning to use your diaphragm will improve lung capacity and posture simultaneously.
The diaphragm improves pelvic floor strength and core stability
I mentioned the diaphragm formed the roof of the core. It is important to remember that your core is not just your 6 pack abs (or lack thereof). The core consists of muscles in the front and back of the trunk, but also the roof and the floor. The roof being the diaphragm and the floor being the pelvic floor muscles. Here is where it gets interesting. In a study testing the correlation of the pelvic floor muscles with the diaphragm, it was concluded that the diaphragm and the pelvic floor muscles have an equal co-contraction; use of one makes the other more efficient and strong. So much so that the researchers suggested that pelvic floor strengthening exercises should be included in respiratory rehabilitation programs. Because of its unique position and attachments, the diaphragm has the ability to strengthen the muscles that are in the front, back ,and floor of your core.
The diaphragm reduces the stress response
It is vital to understand how our mental health affects our posture. It’s no surprise that people under chronic stress generally have more of a slumped posture. One of the amazing qualities of the diaphragm is that it can improve both posture and stress. Yes, diaphragmatic breathing actually lowers your stress levels. There was a study a few years ago out of Stanford that studied the effects of breathe work in veterans suffering with PTSD. PTSD can be shown as a prime example of both emotional and physical tension. Breath work is breathing with the diaphragm in specific patterns like inhale, hold, exhale. The results they found were amazing. Through breath work, the veterans experienced a calmer mind and a calmer body plus were able to reduce their medication. They were reported to have more focus and less reactiveness. Why is this? Not only is there a better flow of oxygen to the brain and body but diaphragmatic breathing actually helps to reduce the fight or flight response of the body and enables the rest and digest response.
Rest sounds a whole lot better than fight doesnt’ it?
The fight or flight response is normal but we don’t want to live there. It means increased heart rate, slow digestion, shallow breathing, and a lot of cortisol running through our blood. This causes chronic stress on our body which means poor sleep pattern, low immunity, and chronic tension in the body. In our normal daily rhythm of life, the part of the nervous system we want most active is our rest and digest response and diaphragmatic breathing is the best way to activate this system.