Response of the Respiratory System to Exercise

Consisting of a series of body parts including the lungs, diaphragm and nasal cavity, the respiratory system is responsible for transporting oxygen and carbon dioxide to and from muscles and tissues. During exercise, the respiratory system increases to meet the demands of the working muscles. The respiratory system also uses the cardiovascular system -- heart, blood and blood vessels -- to transport oxygen and carbon dioxide.

A woman is jogging on a wooded trail. (Image: Stockbyte/Stockbyte/Getty Images)

Heart Rate

During exercise, your adrenal gland increases production of adrenaline and noradrenaline that directly affect the heart and the ability to transport oxygen and carbon dioxide throughout the body. The hormones then directly influence the sympathetic nerves to stimulate the heart to beat stronger for increased stroke volume and faster for increased heart rate and an overall increase in cardiac output.

Oxygen Transport

To meet the increasing oxygen demands from the working muscles, additional oxygen must be transported through the blood vessels. During exercise, the sympathetic nerve stimulates the veins to constrict to return more blood to the heart. This blood is carrying carbon dioxide from the muscles and can increase the total stroke volume of the heart by 30 to 40 percent.

Respiratory Rate

With an increased amount of oxygen and carbon dioxide transport, your respiratory rate -- rate of breathing -- also increases. This increase is also influenced by the sympathetic nerves stimulating the respiratory muscles to increase the rate of breathing. At rest, your respiratory rate is about 14 per minute but can increase to 32 per minute during exercise. The increased respiration rate allows more oxygen to reach the lungs and blood to be delivered to the muscles.

Long Term Response

A long-term respiratory system response to exercise involves several physiological adaptations. These adaptations ultimately result in an increase in overall efficiency of the respiratory system to gather, transport and deliver oxygen to the working muscles. The long-term respiratory function is commonly measured with a VO2 max test that calculates your body's ability for oxygen consumption during maximal exercise. Through exercise and training, the effectiveness of the respiratory system and VO2 max improve.

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