Why do we find it difficult to breathe when we exercise?

Have you ever wondered why you feel short of breath or have difficulty breathing when exercising? When is it a natural consequence of physical exertion and when should you be concerned?

Let’s see how this process works and what to do to breathe correctly.

What is breath?

Respiration is a process by which living beings exchange gases with the environment. Although it fulfills many vital functions for the body, the main one is to provide oxygen to the tissues and dispose of the carbon dioxide produced by the cells.

This breathing process, normally called physiological, should not be confused with cellular respiration.

The latter is a set of biochemical reactions by which certain organic compounds are degraded inside cells.

How do we use oxygen?

It all begins with inhalation, when the inspired oxygen descends through the pharynx, larynx and trachea, into the bronchi and bronchioles, until it reaches the lungs.

Gas exchange occurs in the pulmonary alveoli, through blood vessels. On the one hand, oxygen passes from the alveoli into the blood, and is transported to the muscles, specifically the mitochondria, to produce energy.

In turn, the carbon dioxide produced by the cells passes from the blood to the alveoli to be eliminated in the expiration phase. This entire process is known as pulmonary ventilation.

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However, not all inhaled air is directed to the alveoli to cause gas exchange. Some remains unused in what is known as “anatomical dead space,” which includes the mouth, bronchi, bronchioles, pharynx, larynx, nose, and trachea.

If the volume of air that enters through pulmonary ventilation is subtracted from the volume that remains housed in the “anatomical dead space”, we obtain the air that actually reaches the alveoli and is used. That volume is part of the alveolar ventilation mechanism.

Alveolar ventilation will depend on different factors, such as the way we breathe, the temperature of the environment, or the effort we make when breathing.

What happens when we exercise?

Two key aspects of breathing are the respiratory rate, that is, how many times we breathe in a minute, and the tidal volume, which is the amount of air that enters when breathing.

At rest, it is estimated that we breathe between 12 and 15 times per minute, and, in turn, around half a liter of air is mobilized with each breath. This means that per minute we can move between 6 and 7.5 liters of air. These values ​​vary according to body size and individual characteristics.

All that changes when we exercise. Under these conditions, the muscles need to use more oxygen to obtain energy and to be able to fulfill the required movements.

Because of this, the blood that circulates through the muscular tissues can run out of oxygen and become acidic, endangering the functions of the organism.

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So that this does not happen, our brain receives signals from different receptors distributed throughout the body that tell it to increase the respiratory rate, that is, breathe faster. Tidal volume is also increased, since breathing is much deeper.

It is estimated that, when exercising or playing sports, the respiratory rate can range between 40 to 50 breaths per minute and the tidal volume to be 3 to 4 liters.

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Faced with this increase, we usually notice the popular difficulties in breathing normally, but with this we manage to supply the muscles with enough oxygen and eliminate more carbon dioxide. Thus, the acidity in the blood generated by the muscles is reduced and the pH is maintained stable.

Breathing difficulties when exercising can also be due to other factors:

  • High altitudes.
  • Poor air quality.
  • Extreme temperatures

Underlying diseases, such as allergies, anemia, arrhythmia, asthma, pulmonary edema or embolism, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), hypertension, heart failure, obesity, or pneumonia, among others.

Tips to improve breathing

Those who are not used to exercising will probably have a harder time holding their breath. However, as physical activity becomes a part of the routine it will be easier to breathe under those conditions.

Remember, you don’t have to force yourself to achieve it. If you start to feel short of breath, stop and relax until you can stabilize your breathing.

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These exercises can be helpful in improving the strength of the diaphragm and getting more air into the lungs:

  • Deep breathing: Sit down, relax your shoulders, inhale through your nose and exhale through your mouth. The abdomen should move in and out as you breathe. Do slow, steep reps.
  • Expiration: Inhale for 2-3 seconds and exhale for 4-6. This will help expel any trapped air and make more room for fresh air when you breathe in next time.
  • Physical exercise: High-intensity sports or activities can make it hard to breathe, but other options can help you learn to stabilize your breathing when your muscles are strained, such as walking, weight training, and even yoga and tai chi.

Another aspect that you must take into account to improve breathing when exercising is elongation or stretching. Do it before and after physical activity, and you’ll soon improve your flexibility as well as lung function.

If breathing difficulties persist, you should consult a health professional as soon as possible. They will run tests and determine what the problem is.

They can also help you plan an exercise routine according to your abilities and advise you on how to evolve to improve your breathing.

Sources consulted: US National Library of Medicine, Mayo Clinic, National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute.

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