From the moment you were born, you’ve been breathing.  It’s a normal, involuntary action in a healthy person.  But when you are exercising, whether in the aerobic or muscle building mode, how you breathe can make all the difference in how efficient your exercise will be.  Oxygen is the main source of energy in aerobic exercise. Without adequate oxygen intake during muscle building, the muscle will fatigue too early.  For most people it is a matter of learning how to breathe properly, but for some, breathing can be impaired—and this is a challenge to overcome.

Aaron was a long time personal training client of mine.  Aaron’s routine was well rounded and included muscle building and flexibility training. Aaron loved to run and he was built for it.  His slender frame and long legs made him into an ideal runner with great potential.  But Aaron had one problem that sometimes held him back–he was asthmatic.  Most of the time he was fine, but during certain seasons allergic reactions to dust and pollen would trigger his asthma.  Sometimes Aaron’s asthma began to affect him only while he exercised. This is called exercised induced asthma.

Another client of mine, Gideon, had no breathing problems.  Yet, for some reason he had a hard time coordinating his breathing with his exercise. This was preventing Gideon from getting the most out of his sessions.  We had to work on this!

Breathing during exercise

Intuitive breathing and breathing during exercise seem contradictory.  In muscle building there are two parts to each exercise— concentric (positive) contraction and eccentric (negative) contraction.  Positive contraction is the harder part of the exercise, the lifting part.  Negative contraction is the easier part when we return to the original position.  The intuition is to inhale when lifting a weight, pushing up in a push-up, or sitting up in a sit-up.  However, we should do exactly the opposite.  Exhale during the positive contraction of any exercise and inhale during the negative contraction.  This makes the most efficient use of oxygen. And just as important, when you exhale, you create more stability in the muscles you are working.

Breathing during aerobic exercise

When walking, jogging, swimming, biking or any other form of aerobics, it is important to keep breathing natural and on the shallow side.  Over breathing can cause a pain under the rib cage or what is known as a stitch. We want to master the art of low breathing during cardiovascular exercise. Start at a low intensity for approximately 5 minutes. Breathe in and out through your nose. Increase your intensity to your desired level, and continue to breathe through your nose. Keep your abdomen relaxed and take deep breaths, completely filling your stomach with air before slowly exhaling. Continue this breathing pattern for the duration of your cardio session.

Exercise induced asthma

For those who begin to have asthmatic symptoms during exercise, especially as their intensity increases, Dr. Greg Anderson, PhD of the Justice Institute of British Columbia offers some advice.

Anderson says that those with exercise-induced asthma should have a prolonged (15-minute) warm-up and cool-down to limit exercise-induced bronchospasm. Research suggests: warm up gradually and then be intermittent with a range of intensities; include dynamic activity involving range of motion, balance, agility and neuromuscular activation.

The following tips can help an asthmatic client reduce symptoms while exercising:

  • Use inhaled medication 20 minutes before exercise.
  • Perform a prolonged moderate-intensity warm-up and cool-down, preferably of variable intensity and including a burst of high-intensity activity.
  • Avoid known irritants during exercise.
  • Avoid pollens; exercise indoors during pollen season.
  • Avoid exercise in high-pollution environments or at peak pollution times of day.
  • In cold weather, exercise inside or wear a mask or scarf outside to limit moisture loss. Trap in moisture so that the air breathed in is warm.
  • Exercise in warm, moist environments (such as on the pool deck at a fitness facility).
  • Avoid exercise during viral infection.

Intensity of exercise

Data is mixed concerning appropriate exercise intensities. Prolonged, high-intensity training has been shown to increase the incidence of exercise-induced asthma. In fact, there is now concern that the high flow rates required in exercise at an elite level may be detrimental to an athlete’s respiratory health. Moderate-intensity exercise still seems to be an appropriate goal and a recommendation for clients with known exercise-induced asthma. Also, the exercise environment is extremely important. Warm, moist exercise environments that are protected from pollution and pollen exposure may best serve these clients.

Aaron became an excellent runner, but we had to change his routine when his asthma kicked in.  We would slow down and even walk for extended periods before resuming the running.  The important thing is, Aaron didn’t stop running or exercising during these periods of time.  We found a way, albeit with less intensity, to get his workout in.

Gideon had a hard time getting the hang of how to exercise and breathe properly.  We cut back on what we were doing during his workouts in order to teach the proper breathing techniques.  Slowly but surely Gideon was able to master when to inhale and when to exhale. Sure enough, Gideon soon felt his exercises were easier to do and he was able to progress in a more steady manner, too.

Oxygen intake is vital to our existence even for non-exercisers.  The more efficient we can become in our intake and use of O2, the better we perform in all aspects of life.  And when we exercise, it is vital that we inhale and exhale in sync with our exercises.  Breathing properly during exercise will make our routines far more efficient and “add hours to our day, days to your year and years to our life”.