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In this section, we will take you on a deep-dive journey of how we actually breathe, and what happens when you take a breath of air.


In this section, we will take you on a deep-dive journey of how we actually breathe and what happens when you breathe in air.


Why do we breathe?

We breathe in to bring in oxygen needed for our body to perform the functions that keep us alive. When we breathe out it then removes the bi-product of these actions, carbon dioxide. Breathing is a careful balance between oxygen and carbon dioxide levels in the body. The more you can control this process, the stronger your health and wellbeing will become.

breath fact

Breathing just happens ...

Yes, it does. Breathing is part of our autonomic system. That means that we don't need to think about it for it to happen. An average adult can breathe anywhere between 20,000 to 26,000 times per day!


If you did anything else that many times per day you would most certainly notice it, but do you ever notice your breathing?

I just use my lungs to breathe, right?

No. Although the lungs play a vital role when we breathe, they are actually not capable of inflating themselves. So, how do we get air into the lungs? Muscle contraction is what makes breathing possible, it all starts with our diaphragm.

How do we breathe?

Let's first explore the parts of the body that makes it possible for us to breathe.

1. The respiratory system

The respiratory system in our body is made up of several organs and structures that support us in being able to get air into the lungs.


The respiratory system is divided into an upper and lower respiratory tract.

The upper tract includes:

  • the nose and nasal cavity

  • the sinuses

  • the pharynx (throat)

  • the larynx (voice box)


The lower respiratory tract includes:

  • the lungs

  • the trachea (windpipe)

  • the diaphragm

2. The diaphragm

The diaphragm is the most important muscle in the movement of breathing. It is a parachute-shaped muscle that sits at the base of the chest and divides the chest cavity (where your heart and lungs live) from the abdominal cavity (where your digestive organs live).


When contracted by breathing, the diaphragm produces an up-and-down motion – not only does it support healthy breathing, it regulates the rest and relaxation part of our nervous system, and massages and stimulates our main organs, such as the liver, stomach, large intestine and kidneys.


When engaged properly, the diaphragm can be used to aid digestion and improve overall physical health and wellbeing.

3. Breathing muscles and where we breathe

Breathing happens in your torso, the central cavity of your body. Your torso is connected to your spine and the bones, muscles, and organs of the torso and helps to hold your body up.


This central cavity is extremely important for most of your vital functions. It is home to the heart, lungs, and ribs and houses many of our muscle groups, which help us breathe.


Our muscles play a crucial role in the process of breathing. They lift, move and create space in the body for us to breathe.


We have primary and secondary muscles which help activate breathing. Let's look at the primary muscles first.

Primary breathing muscles

These are the main muscles we should use to breathe.

  • Diaphragm – As mentioned above, this is the main player for breathing.

  • Intercostal muscles – situated in between the ribs that create and move the chest wall. When we breathe in, these muscles contract and pull the ribcage upward and outward.

Secondary breathing muscles

Our secondary muscles act as a support group and are designed to kick into action in shorter bursts when the need to bring more oxygen into the body is required when you exercise for example, but these should not be the primary muscles used for breathing.  


Secondary muscles are located in several areas of the body, including your neck, upper chest and back, with larger muscles in the abdomen, which activate when the body signals the need for more.

The effects of not breathing well

In dysfunctional breathing where the diaphragm is not fully engaged, the secondary or accessory muscles are recruited to assist breathing more than they should. This is the body's way of trying to get more oxygen, however, this is not an effective natural breathing pattern.

  • We use muscles for breathing

  • We have primary muscles, and secondary muscles

  • We have a respiratory system that helps us bring in and move air into the lungs.


Breathing may seem like a simple task, but your body is doing a lot to make this process happen.

Let's explore what actually happens to the air we breathe in.


The breathing process - what happens to the air we breathe in?

How the air we breathe in is turned into energy to keep us functioning, and how the body moves carbon dioxide out.


Now, we don't want to get too 'science-y' here, but it does help to know the difference between the mechanical and chemical processes of breathing as this will help when you start to fine-tune your own breathing habits, and of course, how important it is to breathe well.


Think of breathing as two processes, that work hand in hand together to achieve a final result. Mechanical and Chemical.

The first process (Mechanical) is how we get the air in and out of the body and the second is what happens in the body to the air that is pulled in (Chemical) to allow us to generate the energy we need to keep us functioning and us alive.


Below is a simplified overview of the processes – stay with us!

Breathing Mechanics + Breathing Chemistry = Effective Cellular Respiration

Click on each tab below to find out more.

Included in breathing mechanics is:
  • Inspiration (also called inhalation/breathing in) and

  • Expiration (also called exhalation/breathing out)


The mechanics of breathing is how we get air in and carbon dioxide out of the body. Mechanics refers to the muscles that are used to make breathing happen, the windpipe that carries the air down, the nasal cavity and the voice box that the air passes through for example. It also refers to the depth of the breath and the breathing rhythm. Anything 'mechanical'.

If your breathing is not working well, this will impact the effectiveness of cellular respiration and how your body functions.


For us to achieve an effective cellular process, which keeps us healthy and functioning, we really do need to have good breathing mechanics.

  • We use muscles for breathing

  • We have primary muscles and secondary muscles

  • We have a respiratory system that helps us bring in and move air into the lungs

  • There are breathing mechanics and breathing chemistry that support our required cellular respiration

  • Improving breathing mechanics is key to our health and wellbeing


But, how does the air travel from the lungs to the cells? Let’s take look.

Abstract Horizon

breath fact

Breathing regulates ...

Breathing is one of the major regulators of balancing pH levels within the body and has influence over the nervous system, circulatory system (the system that carries blood away from and towards the heart) and metabolism.

This means that the way you breathe will influence the pH levels of your blood, your blood pressure, your energy levels, stress response and your digestive system.


The breathing journey

Let's take a simple look at the breathing journey when we take a breath.

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Inhalation (breathing in)

The purpose of the inhale is to bring air into the lungs. This happens because of the large breathing muscle called the diaphragm and the use of your respiratory system. 

Breathing muscles

When you inhale, the diaphragm contracts and moves down, and the intercostal muscles, between your ribs also contract, pulling your rib cage upward and outward.


This process allows the chest cavity to enlarge and creates pressure which pulls the air that you breathe in through your nose or mouth.


You can breathe in approximately 5 litres of air with one healthy inhale, which consists of around 20% of oxygen.

Journey to the lungs

Once the air is pulled through your mouth or nose, it travels into your windpipe which is divided into bronchial tubes, then further divided into smaller air passages called bronchioles.


The bronchioles then enter tiny air sacs in your lungs called alveoli. Alveoli are an important part of your respiratory system and the breathing process. Depending on your lung size, you can have up to 600 million alveoli in your lungs.

At the lungs

The alveoli sacs are encased by tiny blood vessels called capillaries, in a process called diffusion, oxygen moves from the alveoli to the blood through the capillaries. Once in the bloodstream, the oxygen gets picked up by haemoglobin (a protein that carries oxygen) in red blood cells to transport through the body.

Delivery of oxygen

The now oxygen-rich blood starts its journey through the left-hand side of your heart where it will pass through the aorta and make its way to all other parts of your body. This way, oxygen reaches each and every cell in your body for cellular respiration to take place.

At the cells and cellular respiration

This is where the real magic happens thanks to mitochondria in the cells. Mitochondria are known as the powerhouse of the cell as they produce the energy-generating chemical reaction, by converting energy from the oxygen delivered, and also from what we eat, and then producing ATP, our body’s energy that we need to function. Carbon dioxide is created at his stage as a bi-product. Cellular respiration is the most important chemical reaction that takes place inside of you. It is what keeps you functioning, alive and kicking!

Releasing carbon dioxide

The now oxygen-rich blood starts its journey through the left-hand side of your heart where it will pass through the aorta and make its way to all other parts of your body. This way, oxygen reaches each and every cell in your body for cellular respiration to take place.

Exhalation (breathing out)

The purpose of the exhale is to expel air from the lungs and balance carbon dioxide levels. When you exhale, the muscles contracted on the inhale, now relax and the opposite effect takes place.


The intercostal muscles relax, pulling the ribcage downwards and inward, and the diaphragm relaxes, now moving upwards which decreases pressure in the chest cavity and air is pushed out of the lungs.

20,000 + Breaths!

We can take around 20,000, or more, breaths per day, and that process continually keeps taking place, without us knowing. How amazing is that!


However, we very rarely consider or notice our breathing, which has developed into unhealthy breathing mechanics and habits, leading to many physical and mental health conditions.


Hopefully you now have a better understanding of what is happening when you breathe, you might perhaps start to notice your breathing more, check in with it from time to time throughout the day - think about the muscles contracting when you breathe, check that you are using your diaphragm and relaxing your shoulders and become aware of the depth of your breath for example.

If you can start to become aware of your breathing and consciously adapt it, if needed, even just a few times a day to start, you're on your way to improving your health and well-being.


Do you feel you could benefit from breathing a little better? Take a look at the Breath Check and our Programmes to find out more.

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In section 2 we start to explore how our breathing impacts the way we feel and think.

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