How Does Exercise Affect the Rate of Breathing?

Instructor: Amanda Robb

Amanda holds a Masters in Science from Tufts Medical School in Cellular and Molecular Physiology. She has taught high school Biology and Physics for 8 years.

In this lesson, you'll be learning about the relationship between exercise and breathing. By the end of the lesson, you'll understand what happens to your breathing rate when you exercise and the science behind why it happens.

Why Do We Breathe?

Right now, even if you're trying to sit perfectly still, your rib cage is still expanding and contracting as you breathe. Your shoulders might rise with each inhalation and fall a bit with each exhalation. Take a moment to notice your breathing. But, why do we breathe even when we're sitting still like this? You might be thinking the answer is obviously to get oxygen. But why do we need oxygen?

Oxygen from the air we breathe is taken into tiny sacs deep inside the lungs. These sacs are lined with blood vessels. The oxygen diffuses into our blood and is carried to the heart and the rest of the body. Every cell in our body needs oxygen to make energy during a process called cellular respiration. Without oxygen, cells can't make energy and or do any of their other jobs. For example, when you can't get enough oxygen to your brain you pass out because your brain cells can't make energy.

Cells use oxygen during cellular respiration to make energy
cellular respiration

Breathing not only involves inhaling, but also exhaling. When our cells do cellular respiration they make carbon dioxide as a waste product. Carbon dioxide is toxic, so our cells must get rid of it. The carbon dioxide diffuses back into the blood and is carried to the heart and then to the lungs where it can be exhaled. If we don't get rid of carbon dioxide, it builds up in our body and we can die.

Exercise and Breathing

As you can see, breathing is essential to human life. We want this process to be in a perfect balance with our activity, called homeostasis. It wouldn't make sense to be hyperventilating when we sleep, or to slow our breathing to a minimum when we are trying to sprint to the train. Today, we're going to look at how the rate of breathing changes with exercise.

Short Term Effects

Picture getting up in the morning to go for a run. As you warm up with a brisk walk, you might find your heart beating a little faster and your breathing increasing a little. What happens to your body after you've been running for 30 minutes? Your heart is probably beating through your chest, you're breathing heavily, and your muscles might even start to ache. Since our breathing rate increases with increased exercise, these two variables have a direct relationship. Why do you breathe faster when you exercise?

During a run you will quickly notice changes in your respiratory system and heart rate

When you exercise, do you need more or less energy? You're probably thinking more and you're right. But remember, where does energy come from? We need oxygen to make energy, so if we need more energy, we need more oxygen. Immediately when you start exercising your body is spending more energy. So, your breathing rate needs to increase so you can get more oxygen to make more energy.

Other changes occur as well. Since oxygen is carried in your blood, your heart beats faster to get the oxygen to your cells quicker. You're also making more carbon dioxide since your cells are doing more cellular respiration. This needs to be transported back to the lungs quickly and exhaled. So, again your breathing rate must increase.

Long-Term Effects

However, if you haven't been running in a while, you might find yourself really out of breath after a couple miles. But, you know other athletes run ultra marathons, running for over 26 miles at a time. How will your lungs ever adapt to longer distances?

We all know exercise is good for our body, but how does it change our respiratory system in the long term? Scientists can explain the health of our lungs using a few different measurements. One important measurement is the VO2 max, or the maximum oxygen consumption of the body.

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