Why Breathing Hard Is Good For You

Breathing hard and heavy when you exercise is not a cause for concern or embarrassment. In fact, unless you have an underlying medical problem, heavy breathing is simply the body’s way of getting more oxygen to your hard-working cells.

Brock Armstrong,
Photo of a runner breathing hard

Shortness of breath (dyspnea) that comes on suddenly is linked to a number of scary causes, including carbon monoxide poisoning, cardiac tamponade (excess fluid around the heart), heart attack, and pneumothorax (collapsed lung). Happily, that is not what I want to address today.

Instead, I want to focus on an issue that I see all too often when I am out training with groups of fitness enthusiasts. The desire to never let anyone see you breathing too hard.

This is a particular issue that appears in us humans sometime in our teens and, with few exceptions, spills into our adult years. In general, the only people I see allowing their bodies to grab on to the greatest amount of oxygen possible are children and pro athletes. The rest of us seem to view it as some sort of indication that we are "out of shape" or something to be embarrassed or ashamed of. So, instead of giving out body what its needs, we suppress the natural desire to suck in more air and I think that is holding us back from reaching our full potential. 

Why We Breathe Hard

Basically, when you feel the need to breathe heavier during exercise, it is a sign that your body needs more oxygen because you are asking your muscles to work harder. It is purely a physiological process that everyone goes through. During exercise, your heart and the lungs really get to show off. Your lungs gather the oxygen for your body, providing energy and removing carbon dioxide (the byproduct created when you produce energy). Then your heart pumps that oxygen out and around to all the muscles that are doing the exercise.

Obviously, when you are exercising, your muscles need to work harder than when they are at rest, so your body devours more and more oxygen while also producing more and more carbon dioxide. In order to deal with this increased demand, your breathing rate and depth must increase. For the general population, breathing rate will go up from about 15 times a minute when you are taking it easy, to about 50 times a minute when you are going hard. At the same time, your circulation speeds up, so your blood can usher the oxygen to the muscles so that they can keep performing at their peak.

The process called Cellular Respiration is how your muscles use oxygen to produce energy (ATP). This process is actually surprisingly simple: your body grabs oxygen from the air you breathe, it enters the bloodstream through your lungs, it gets carried to your muscles, some is used right away, and some is stored in a substance called myoglobin. Even if you are not exercising, the oxygen you breathe into your body is used to break down glucose to create ATP (fuel) for your muscles.


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