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Breathing Properly While Exercising

Breathing is the process of inhaling and exhaling air, that persists throughout a person’s life. Though it is vital, people constantly overlook it. Breathing is a reflex that living beings do without thinking. However, recognizing how one breathes can benefit one’s health and exercise routine.

What happens during exercise? 

“During exercise, two of the important organs of the body come into action: the heart and the lungs. The lungs bring oxygen into the body, to provide energy, and remove carbon dioxide, the waste product created when you produce energy. The heart pumps the oxygen to the muscles that are doing the exercise. When you exercise and your muscles work harder, your body uses more oxygen and produces more carbon dioxide. To cope with this extra demand, your breathing has to increase from about 15 times a minute (12 liters of air) when you are resting, up to about 40–60 times a minute (100 liters of air) during exercise. Your circulation also speeds up to take the oxygen to the muscles so that they can keep moving.”1

To understand what happens to our lungs while exercising, one must comprehend the overall pulmonary ventilation process. “The physiological function of pulmonary ventilation is to ensure a gas exchange in the lungs which matches that of tissue metabolism, so that respiratory homeostasis is maintained. Pulmonary ventilation is achieved by generating the required inspiratory and expiratory air flows with the respiratory muscles. The contraction of the diaphragm and external intercostal muscles provides the force required to produce the inspiratory flow. The expiratory flow is normally produced by the passive recoil of the lungs, although it can be actively generated by the contraction of the rectus abdominus and internal intercostal muscles.”2

How does intense physical exertion stimulate the respiratory system?

“Heavy exercise is characterized by the accumulation of [La] (lactic acid) in blood. After a large increase at the onset of exercise, blood [La] (lactic acid) may decrease to a value well above the baseline or it may be sustained at a high level. Oxygen uptake increases with kinetics similar to (or slightly slower than) the increase during moderate exercise. This increase projects to the level of O2 uptake as estimated by the proportionality gain in the moderate domain. Several minutes (some 2 -3 minutes typically) after exercise onset, a slow phase of O2 uptake occurs which results in a much later attainment of the steady-state and a higher proportionality gain. There is no exact border between moderate and heavy exercise but because lactate accumulation becomes the discriminator of the two domains, the border is called the lactate threshold (LT). The lactate threshold is also called the anaerobic threshold because lactate is produced in anaerobic metabolism (metabolism that does not use oxygen).”3

Changes in the rate of ventilation or minute ventilation

“During the short period before exercise begins, during the exercise period, and during the recovery period immediately after exercise, the following describes the reasons for the changes in the rate of ventilation or minute ventilation. 

  • Anticipatory rise in V.E (Minute ventilation) is due to the hormonal action of adrenaline and noradrenaline on the respiratory center in the brain. This rise is caused by the excitement in anticipation of exercise beginning. 
  • The rapid rise of V.E (Minute ventilation) on exercise beginning is due to proprioceptor sensory stimulation, and also due to continued release of hormones. During this period, exercise is anaerobic in nature and does not require oxygen from the respiratory system. However, an oxygen debt is building up, and this will need to be dealt with later. 
  • During sub-maximal exercise, a leveling off of V.E (Minute ventilation) occurs as a steady-state is developed between the oxygen required and provided by the respiratory system. Some recovery of O2 debt (aerobic) occurs. 
  • During maximal workloads there is a continued slower increase in V.E (Minute ventilation) as anaerobic systems continue to be stressed. This produces lactic acid + CO2 (carbon dioxide) + K+ (potassium), which stimulate chemoreceptors at the maximal level. The main stimulant for increased rates of ventilation is the presence of carbon dioxide in the blood flowing past chemoreceptors. 
  • As exercise ends, there is a rapid decline in V.E (Minute ventilation) due to cessation of proprioceptive stimuli and the withdrawal of hormones, then a leveling out to pre-exercise values.
  • Later, after maximal work, there is a much slower decrease in V.E (Minute ventilation) due to the clearance of metabolites such as lactic acid and carbon dioxide as systems return to normal resting values.”4 


Effect of exercise on respiratory systems (5)


Intense aerobic exercise has the effect of forcing the person to breathe more deeply and more often (the vital capacity of the lung is fully utilized, and the breathing frequency (f) increases). Therefore, as a result of long-term exercise, the following adaptations take place within the body which tend to make more efficient the transfer (from air breathed in) of oxygen to working muscle. Long-term exercise has the effect of exercising the respiratory muscular system – namely, the diaphragm and intercostal muscles. If exercise is continued at least two to three times per week, these muscles will get fitter and stronger and more capable of working without cramps and conditions like stitches. The efficiency of the respiratory system will depend on the utilization and capacity of the alveoli to take oxygen from air breathed in and transmit it to blood flowing through the alveolar-capillary bed. Long-term physical activity increases blood flow to the upper lobes of the lungs to increase utilization of lung alveoli, hence increases gaseous exchange and therefore V. O2max at high-intensity aerobic workloads.”6

Breathing Tips During Exercise 

Athletes use different forms of breathing for exercising that can help gain resistance and fulfill the exercise routine properly without draining energy. The following are some breathing tips for a successful exercise routine.


Regulating the breathing pattern while exercising begins with stretching. Consider stretching before exercising, since it allows to move safely and prevents injuries. Although stretching the upper and lower extremities is critical, ensure to stretch other areas such as the thorax and abdomen.

Breathe constantly while extending the body, and inhale until the diaphragm contracts, so that the body receives the amount of air required to perform its functions.  This may also provide the ability to extend the body further.


When engaged in cardio exercises, belly breathing is the best tool. Runners check their breathing assessing the pattern of their rhythmic breaths. This technique involves counting the number of times one inhales and exhales with every step. To illustrate, if the target ratio is 2:2, this means that you take 2 steps for inhaling and 2 steps for exhaling.

When rhythmic breathing is not at a beneficial pace, one might experience breathing difficulties or abruptly feel extremely tired.

“A mistake is made by assuming that one should raise and expand the upper chest and hold in the waist when the air is needed. This easily occurs when one is getting tired of losing control of the breath. Puffing out the chest in order to get more air, however, jams the respiratory process. Emphasizing the chest enlarges the upper ribcage and flatters the abdominal wall against the diaphragm, forcing the ribcage and the diaphragm to work at odds. In this arrangement, one can only breathe partially at best, since the diaphragm can hardly descend. The constricted abdominal region and expanded ribcage producing the puffed chest keep the diaphragm locked upward, more or less unable to descend properly to allow the lungs a fuller refill.”7

When using a staircase, one can try different ratios of rhythmic breathing.  However, remember that, in these cases, breathing requires you to be highly aware and takes in more air, is the best.

What some ratios indicate


This ratio indicates that you are not allowing the period necessary to take in air that is richer for your lungs


This is the ratio at which people who tend to run, often find themselves at


If you are not used to running, you should try to begin your routine at this ratio

Weight Lifting

When engaged in exercises that require the use of physical strength, you have to pay attention to the way you are breathing. If you are using weights, you should take in air prior to lifting the weight, and breathe out air when you have lifted the weight. In these scenarios, you should try breathing in a way that develops naturally.

Thoracic Breathing vs. Belly Breathing

Thoracic Breathing

This breathing is neither long nor very deep. “Chest breathing moves the air into the lungs by expanding the chest, or thorax. This occurs readily among runners as non-runners. Breathing with the emphasis upon expanding the chest fills the middle and upper portion of the lungs, while minimizing the lower lobes. The deliberate expansion of the chest invokes the activation of the intercostal muscles in between the ribs, which actually swing upward and forward, allowing a greater volume of air to inflate the lungs. The lifting of the ribcage requires more energy than any other type of breathing, and thus causes the heart to work harder.”8

Belly Breathing

This breathing is efficient for exercising. It is deep and provides calm. Disciplines such as yoga use belly breathing.

“Proper ventilation occurs when the dome-shaped diaphragm relaxes upward, compressing the lungs for exhalation, and the tightens and flatters downward, allowing for the recoil of the lungs and the consequence entrance of fresh air into them. This reciprocal cycle is assisted throughout by the conjoined movement of the intercostal muscles of the ribcage, and especially the front of the abdominal wall. Although the lungs are squeezed and released from all sides, the emphasis remains upon the movement of the diaphragm.”9

Mouth Breathing vs. Nasal Breathing

It depends on personal opinion.  Although certain sources indicate one is more beneficial than the other, no standard judges this. Each person has a different body; therefore, how one responds to certain types of breathing is different as well.

As breathing is a vital process, improving the quality of this activity is crucial, not only when exercising but for emotional and healing purposes. Consider learning meditation or breathing techniques with a professional.



(1)Your lungs and exercise. ELF European Lung Foundation. 

(2) A review of the control of breathing during exercise. Jason H. Mateika, J.H. & Duffln, J. European Journal of Applied Physiology. 1995

(3) Modelling the Respiratory Control System in Human Subjects for Exercise Conditions. Thamrin, H. University of Glasgow. 2008 (pg. 22) 

(4, 5, 6) Effects Of Exercise – Cardio & Respiratory Systems. (pg. 63, 69) 

(7, 8, 9) Running and Breathing. O’Brien, J. Yes International Publishers. 2002. (pg. 37-38-39)


María Laura Márquez
13 October, 2018

Written by

María Laura Márquez, general doctor graduated from The University of Oriente in 2018, Venezuela. My interests in the world of medicine and science, are focused on surgery and its breakthroughs. Nowadays I practice my more:

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