Take a deep breath. Now, let it out slowly. Did your chest rise and fall, or did your stomach expand and contract? That’s the difference between shallow breathing and diaphragm breathing. Research indicates that breathing from deep in your belly, rather than from your chest (as many of us tend to do), may help reduce stress, stabilize blood pressure and support your health.1 Read on as we discuss what diaphragmatic breathing is and the benefits of diaphragm breathing — plus, we share a simple diaphragmatic breathing exercise you can try starting today.
What is diaphragmatic breathing?
Also called diaphragmatic breathing, belly breathing or deep breathing, diaphragm breathing is, simply, a type of breathing you do while engaging your diaphragm.
A dome-shaped muscle located at the base of your lungs, the diaphragm is the major muscle of respiration (surprisingly, it's not your lungs!).2 As the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute explains, when you inhale, the diaphragm contracts and moves downward.3 This action increases the space in your chest cavity — allowing your lung muscles to expand and fill with air.3 When you exhale, the diaphragm relaxes, moving upward into the chest cavity and helping to push carbon dioxide-rich air out of your lungs.
Diaphragm breathing is often associated with meditation, yoga and martial arts,4 but it's a practice we all can use and benefit from. Unfortunately, due to stress and poor posture, many of us breathe mainly from our chests, rather than from our diaphragms.
Benefits of diaphragm breathing
Why change how you breathe? Well, belly breathing not only allows for more efficient oxygen exchange,5 but it's also good for your health and well-being. Here are some of the benefits of diaphragmatic breathing supported by science:
1. Reduced stress and anxiety
2. Improved heart health
Using slow abdominal breathing may help lower both systolic and diastolic blood pressure, according to research.6 It also may increase heart rate variability (HRV),4 which is the variation in time between heartbeats. This is important, as a higher HRV (more variation) may indicate better heart health and an increased ability to bounce back from stress.7
3. Sustained attention
If you're trying to concentrate, doing some deep breathing exercises may be beneficial. In a small 2017 study of 40 healthy adults, 20 sessions of intensive diaphragmatic training significantly improved participants’ ability to maintain their attention during a complex test. The researchers say deep breathing may help “link mind and body” so we can better process information that is related to attention.4
4. Quicker post-workout recovery
Try using diaphragmatic breathing to boost your post-workout recovery. In a small Italian study published in 2011,8 16 amateur male athletes cycled for eight hours. Following the exercise session, eight of the participants who had previously been trained in diaphragmatic breathing practiced proper breathing for an hour while the other eight simply relaxed. Those who practiced diaphragmatic breathing had lower cortisol levels and higher levels of melatonin, an antioxidant that helps fight free radical production. Although more research is needed to support these results, the researchers believe integrating deep breathing exercises after physical activity could benefit athletes in the post-workout recovery process.
5. Weight management
Because stress is often tied to weight gain, practicing belly breathing may help you to de-stress and support your weight loss goals. In a small Greek study of 34 overweight and obese women,9 those who practiced stress-management techniques, including diaphragmatic breathing and progressive muscle relaxation, experienced a “significant improvement” in weight loss compared to the women in the control group.
How to breathe from your diaphragm
Here is how to breathe from your diaphragm, according to the Cleveland Clinic:10
1. Find a comfortable place, such as your bed, couch or a mat on the floor. Lie down, using pillows to prop up your body so you are completely comfortable.
2. With your knees bent or legs straight, place one hand on your abdomen and the other hand on your chest. It does not matter which hand you place where.
3. Breathing through your nose, inhale deeply. You will feel the hand on your stomach slowly start to rise, while the hand on your chest should remain fairly still.
4. At the top of your inhale, pause for a moment, then exhale through pursed lips (imagine you are gently blowing out a candle). As you exhale, you will feel the hand on your stomach slowly fall. Again, the hand on your chest should remain fairly still.
5. Continue practicing for 5 to 10 minutes. Aim to practice most days of the week — the more you do this deep breathing exercise, the more natural it will become.
Breathing from your diaphragm can take a little practice if you are not used to it. However, with time, you can shift from breathing through your chest to breathing through your belly, using your abdominal muscles — and be able to reap the benefits of diaphragmatic breathing.
Interested in learning other ways to incorporate healthy tips into your lifestyle besides diaphragmatic breathing? Download a free copy of our Healthy Edition Magazine!
Brittany is a writer, editor and digital strategist specializing in health and lifestyle content. Her clients include Men's Health, Women's Health, SELF and Yoga Journal. Brittany earned her master's and bachelor's degrees from Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. To stay sane from working too hard, she turns to yoga, strength training and meditation.
Favorite healthy snack: smoothies
Reviewed by Briana Rodriquez, RDN
Briana is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist and Certified Personal Trainer for Jenny Craig, based in Carlsbad, California. She is passionate about utilizing food as functional and preventative medicine. Guided by a simplistic and optimistic approach, Briana’s philosophy is to help people improve their health and achieve their goals through the development of sustainable habits to live a healthy life. In her free time, you can find her strength training, indoor cycling, coffee tasting, and at local eateries with her husband and two dogs.
Favorite healthy snack: peanut butter with celery alongside a grapefruit-flavored sparkling water (so refreshing!)
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