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How to Breathe (Easier) as We Age

Many cultures recommend specific breathing patterns combined with movement, yoga and qigong for example, as practices to restore and maintain physical and mental health. From a Nutritious Movement perspective, breathing better means moving all your breathing parts.  

What else do you do 25,000 times a day without thinking about it? A breath comes in, and then it goes out, whether we’re awake, asleep or unconscious (usually). Even if you try to hold your breath (try it now!), your body will eventually signal the need to exhale and begin breathing again.  

Are you still holding your breath? Is your body asking you to breathe right now? Maybe it’s time to exhale.  

What Is Breathing?

At a basic physical level, breathing happens when your brainstem signals the diaphragm and intercostal muscles to contract and relax at regular intervals to bring in oxygen (O2) and eliminate carbon dioxide (CO2). You don’t have to think much about the many biochemical, environmental, psychological and biomechanical processes that make breathing possible. But if you want to learn more about it, I’ve got links you’ll love.  

Breathing Changes with Age… Or Does It?

From a medical point of view, here’s how aging effects our respiratory system:

  • Decreases our capacity to fully inhale and exhale;
  • Decreases our ability to exchange CO2 and O2;
  • Decreases our ability to filter pathogens and particles before they reach the lungs;
  • Weakening of our respiratory muscles.

But aging (alone) may not be the cause of the problems listed above.

From a Nutritious Movement® perspective, the older we are, the more time we may have spent NOT moving all of our breathing parts. Those parts get stiff from lack of movement. They get stuck in the patterns we use most of the time. No matter what part of the body we’re talking about, the remedy is the same: move more of you more often.  

Room to Breathe

To breathe better, you need to be able to change the shape of your thoracic cavity. Think of it like a room: your shoulders are the ceiling, the ribcage and the muscles between them are the walls, and the diaphragm muscle is the floor. Now imagine that everything in this whole room is movable: the bones, muscles, ligaments and organs must move.

The only way to bring air in is to enlarge and expand that room. You could lower the diaphragm to make more space at the bottom; your ribs could rotate to make more space on the sides; you could lift your shoulders up toward your ears to make room at the top; or you could do any combination of all three. Making the room bigger lowers the internal pressure. And low pressure sends a signal to fill your lungs with a big, refreshing breath.

Take a Tour of Your Breathing “Room”

Take a few minutes to tour your breathing “room.” Stand or sit comfortably as you use your inner eye to “take a look” around. Breathe as you usually do. Observe the floor, ceiling and walls. Don’t try to do anything different right now.

What parts of the room move easily? What parts don’t seem to be moving at all? Now, take a deep breath in and expand the whole room. As you let that breath out, notice what parts of you are breathing. Keep paying attention for five full, deep breaths.   

How to Move Your Breathing Parts Better

Biomechanist Katy Bowman goes deep into the anatomy and biomechanics of breathing in her article on better breathing. Her parts list includes:

  • the ribcage,
  • individual ribs and vertebrae to which they attach, along with
  • muscles of the diaphragm,
  • muscles between the ribs,
  • muscles in the neck and head,
  • chest, shoulders, arms and
  • pelvic floor.  

That’s definitely a longer list than I usually think about when I teach active, deep breathing. Take another tour of your breathing room with this list in mind. Can you feel how it’s not just the movement of the diaphragm and intercostal muscles that lowers pressure in your thoracic cavity? Breathing involves so many more of your moving parts.

“Breathing is the most important movement of all,” Katy says. “If we’re doing it (and if you’re reading this, you’re doing it. WELL DONE!), we’ve adapted to any resistances our body may be offering to be able to breathe well enough when we’re healthy. What we’re working on here is the ability to find the sticky spots in our breathing so if we’re challenged, we can call on more breathing volume. When we try to breathe in new ways, we’re asking new (and stiff) parts in our body to change shape, which can make breathing harder. That’s because we’re feeling the decrease in breath due to the stiffness of those parts.”

Better Breathing for Dynamic Aging

We’re all getting older. (Thankfully, right?) I don’t want aging, or my ideas about aging, to limit how I move, now or in 10 or even 20 more years. I teach Restorative Exercise as a method you can learn and practice to change your mind about how everyday movements can contribute to dynamic aging.

You could bring these new ideas about breathing into your exercise class, yoga practice, house cleaning routine or office workspace.

Follow me through the short Restorative Exercise video with a Qigong twist that you will find below. Qigong is a relaxing, meditative movement practice that incorporates the many benefits of nasal breathing with whole body stretching. Expanding your “breathing room” through this gentle standing spinal twist will challenge you to really move all your breathing parts!

I teach Qigong twice a week in my online studio. Join me to explore your breath and relax your mind and body!

Let’s Have a Conversation:

Have you noticed a change in your ability to breathe deeply as you age? What are your favorite breath practices?

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The Author

Catherine Stifter believes moving well has no age limit. Her Restorative Exercise programs help restore strength, mobility and balance at any stage of life. Join her online Aging Well Book Club, specifically designed for curious movers who want to learn together. Catherine can be contacted at

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