The effect that sitting has on your ability to breathe is a serious and underappreciated problem. In fact, it’s so underappreciated that you probably don’t even realize it’s a problem for you at all. Don’t believe me? Just think back to any day this week between 3 and 4 p.m. in the afternoon. Imagine how you felt at this time. Extremely tired? Perhaps a little bit dizzy? About ready to pass out on your keyboard?
Although your symptoms could be attributed to the burrito you ate for lunch, or the fact that you pulled an all-nighter drafting an overdue motion for summary judgment, another possibility is that you simply aren’t breathing enough. As a result, your body may be starved for oxygen. But why does this occur?
The answer is found by examining the effects of sitting on the diaphragm and lungs. The diaphragm is a big muscle located just under the lungs and above your belly. Shaped like a jellyfish or a parachute, it assists with breathing by dropping down when your lungs take air in and rising up as your lungs push air out.
Generally, breathing works best when you are standing up and your spine is properly aligned. Air can move in and out of the lungs freely, and your diaphragm can assist in helping your lungs expand to their natural, full capacity.
But just think about what happens when you are sitting hunched over your computer: because your front body is collapsed, the lungs and the diaphragm have much less space to expand. Therefore, as your body collapses further and further in on itself, your breathing becomes increasingly shallow.
Once you start becoming aware of this problem, you may notice that you are just barely breathing by late afternoon. And, toward the end of a really long day, you may feel like you’re actually gasping for breath. What your body desperately needs at this point is more oxygen. Easy enough, right? Perhaps not.
Unfortunately, because your front body has tightened up from collapsing in all day, you may find it physically difficult to take the full, deep inhales necessary to increase oxygen flow in the body. The goods news is that there is a quick fix for this problem, which involves a simple breathing exercise:
First, get up and stretch your chest open. Clasp your hands at the base of your spine (palms pressing), and, while keeping a bend in your elbows to allow you to squeeze your shoulder blades together and down your back, fold forward while trying to lift your hands over your head. Hold this for a while, until you feel your chest loosening up a bit.
Next, it’s time for a breathing exercise to help oxygenate your blood. Sit down in your chair, making sure to keep your spine straight, your abdomen drawn in slightly, and your shoulders gently pulling down your back. Place your hands on your lower belly and breath in deeply through your nose. Then, begin contracting your lower belly (where your hands are placed) to press air out in short, even bursts. As you continue to do this, try to focus on your exhalations so that your inhalations becomes automatic and passive (note: if your shoulders and chest are moving with each exhale, you are doing it wrong). Gradually quicken the pace. Once you’ve had enough of this (it won’t take long), take a few slow, deep breaths.
By the end of this exercise you should feel refreshed and ready to get back to work.
Elizabeth Adams (not her real name) is a recent law school graduate, former federal judicial clerk, and aspiring health guru. She currently practices insurance coverage litigation at a mid-sized law firm. When she isn’t sitting at a desk — which isn’t very often — she is following her bliss. At the moment, this mainly involves working toward becoming a certified yoga teacher. Elizabeth’s column focuses on exploring how and whether lawyers can achieve a sustainable work-life balance. She can be reached at email@example.com.