Feeling out of breath is normal after a workout as your lungs strive to meet the oxygen demands of your muscles. However, if you have shortness of breath after exercise and can't catch your breath after a workout, it may be a more serious condition like exercise-induced asthma.
Finding it hard to breathe after exercise may be due to environmental conditions such as cold, dry or polluted air. It may also be the sign of a more serious medical condition like exercise-induced asthma or other lung condition.
Increased Respiration Rate During Exercise
Feeling out of breath is perfectly normal during exercise as you increase the intensity. As your muscles work, they need additional oxygen from the bloodstream, and they need the blood to take away the carbon dioxide they produce. To accommodate these needs, your breathing and heart rate increase.
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At rest, you typically breathe approximately 15 times per minute. When you exercise, your respiration rate can increase to 40 to 60 times per minute, notes the March 2016 edition of Breathe. When you exercise regularly, your muscles become more efficient over time, reducing the amount of oxygen they need.
It is important to do what you can to keep your lungs healthy. If you have damage to the lungs from smoking or illness, you will find it more difficult to breathe after exercise. Environmental conditions can also affect your lung health and breathing. Air pollution, chlorine from a pool and extremely cold air may all negatively affect your lungs.
Exercising in cold air may be painful for your lungs as they work to both warm and humidify the air you breathe in, notes Wexner Medical Center. The cold can cause your airways to constrict and, due to the dryness that comes with cold air, your lungs and throat can become irritated and even begin to crack in extreme cases. Avoid this potential damage by staying hydrated, taking a hot shower after exercise and wearing a scarf over your mouth to help warm the air.
With age, your lungs slowly start to decline. Your airways and blood vessels become less flexible and the air sacs where oxygen and carbon dioxide move in and out of the bloodstream begin to expand, making the transfer less efficient, notes Harvard Health Publishing. All of these factors can make you feel more shortness of breath after exercise.
In addition, your bones may become weaker, which can make your rib cage stiffer, preventing the movement necessary for full and complete breaths. Muscles also weaken with age, including the diaphragm, the main muscle used for breathing.
Read more: The Effects of Exercise on Lung Capacity
While it is normal to feel out of breath, shortness of breath after exercise is not. If you experience shortness of breath or chest pain, stop and seek medical attention.
Exercise-Induced Asthma or Bronchoconstriction
Bronchoconstriction occurs when the airways that bring air into the lungs narrow. When this is triggered by exercise, it is called exercise-induced asthma or exercise-induced bronchoconstriction.
Asthma is a chronic condition with symptoms similar to exercise-induced asthma. Individuals with exercise-induced asthma do not necessarily have the chronic condition of asthma.
The main factor that triggers the condition is the inhalation of dry, polluted or cold air, notes the University of Rochester Medical Center. When you breathe in through your nose, the air is warmed and moistened as it moves into the lungs. However, most people tend to breath more through their mouths during exercise, so the air entering the lungs is still cold and dry.
The cause of exercise-induced asthma is not fully known, but your risk of developing exercise-induced asthma increases if you are out of shape or exercise outdoors when pollution and pollen levels are high. Other risk factors include allergies, especially nasal allergies, a respiratory infection or vocal cord problems.
Read more: Tightness in the Chest After Exercise
Treating Exercise-Induced Asthma
If you have symptoms such as shortness of breath, wheezing, chest pain, coughing and tightness in the chest that start shortly after you begin exercising, you may have exercise-induced asthma. Your doctor will conduct a physical exam and a lung function test, such as spirometry, while at rest and during exercise, to confirm the diagnosis.
Spirometry is a test that requires you to blow into a tube. It measures how strongly you are able to inhale and exhale. Another pulmonary function test your doctor might request is plethysmography, a test that measures your lung volume. A diffusion capacity test measures how efficiently your lungs are able to move oxygen into your bloodstream.
With a few precautions, you can continue to safely exercise with exercise-induced asthma. Your doctor may prescribe an inhaler medication such as albuterol to help keep your airways open. Typically, you will take the medication approximately 15 minutes before your workout and during and after your workout as needed. Follow your doctor's instructions.
Avoid conditions that trigger the exercise-induced asthma. For example, avoid exercising outdoors on days that are very cold or have high pollution. Be sure to do a good warm-up and cool-down before and after your workout and increase the intensity of your training slowly over time.
Asthma can be a life-threatening emergency. If you are taking your medicine and still having trouble breathing, experiencing chest pain or tightness, your lips or fingers are turning blue or you feel drowsy, seek medical attention immediately.
Smoking and COPD
Smoking causes permanent damage to the lungs, decreasing your lung function and capacity. The inflammation caused by smoking will decrease when you quit, so you will notice a positive difference in your breathing as soon as two weeks after quitting.
Smoking is also one of the main factors that lead to the development of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD. Other factors include second-hand smoke, poor air quality, respiratory infections and genetic predisposition, notes the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). COPD is not a single condition, but rather encompasses a group of diseases such as emphysema and chronic bronchitis that cause breathing problems.
Symptoms of COPD include coughing, wheezing, shortness of breath, difficulty taking a full deep breath and excess phlegm. It can make breathing during and after exercise very difficult. Your doctor can diagnose COPD with a spirometry test.
In addition to quitting smoking, your doctor may prescribe medication to treat your symptoms. In some cases, supplemental oxygen is necessary. Lung infections like pneumonia can be very dangerous for individuals with COPD.
Pulmonary rehabilitation may help to manage COPD and other lung diseases. This treatment may include:
- Custom exercise plan and progression to increase your strength and endurance
- Nutritional counseling to maintain a healthy weight
- Breathing techniques to increase oxygen levels and keep airways open
- Energy management techniques to control stress and manage activities that may challenge your breathing
- Counseling, group support and education to learn about the condition and how to mentally and emotionally cope with breathing difficulties
Other Lung Conditions
Other lung conditions that make it hard to breathe after exercise include cystic fibrosis and interstitial lung disease. Cystic fibrosis is a genetic disorder that is normally diagnosed in childhood. However, some individuals have only mild symptoms and aren't diagnosed until they reach adulthood, notes the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation.
Cystic fibrosis is caused by a gene mutation that causes a specific protein to become dysfunctional. Without this protein, the cells are unable to attract water, and as a result mucus in the body becomes thick and sticky. In the lungs, the thick mucus can clog the airways and trap bacteria and viruses that may lead to infection. It also affects other organs such as the liver and pancreas and may lead to liver failure or malnutrition due to an inability to properly absorb nutrients.
Symptoms of cystic fibrosis may include a persistent cough, salty skin, wheezing, shortness of breath and frequent lung infections. Male infertility, inability to gain weight and greasy or bulky stools may also be seen.
There is no cure for cystic fibrosis, but treatment options are available and may include:
- Inhalers to open the airways that may also include antibiotics to prevent infection
- Enzyme supplements to allow proper absorption of nutrients
- Medications to target the dysfunctional protein
- Individual health and fitness plan to stay healthy while coping with ongoing symptoms
Interstitial lung diseases may also cause breathing problems after exercise. These conditions are characterized by scarring and inflammation in the lungs, notes the U.S. National Library of Medicine. Some examples include asbestosis from asbestos fibers and farmer's lung from dust. Specific treatment options and prognosis depends on the type and severity of the disease.
Another example is black lung disease, or pneumoconiosis. It is primarily caused by inhaling mineral dust, like coal dust, and is common among coal miners. The dust becomes trapped in the lungs causing irritation, inflammation and, in severe cases, scar tissue, notes the American Lung Association. Common symptoms include a dry cough and shortness of breath.
Silicosis is another occupational lung disease caused by inhaling silica dust, typically in a work setting like mining and glass manufacturing. The silica dust scars the lungs, making breathing challenging. The condition can be acute, causing cough and weight loss in as little as a few weeks after exposure, or chronic, causing extensive scarring and appearing after 10 to 30 years. Accelerated silicosis occurs after high levels of exposure to the silica dust and appears within 10 years.
The scarring with this condition begins in the air sacs where oxygen transfer happens. Over time, scarring increases and the lungs become stiff. In addition to breathing problems, it also increases the risk of other lung conditions such as lung cancer, chronic bronchitis and tuberculosis.
- National Institutes of Health: "Your Lungs and Exercise"
- University of Rochester Medical Center: "Exercise-Induced Bronchoconstriction"
- Harvard Health Publishing: "Breathing Life Into Your Lungs"
- Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center: "Why Exercising in the Cold Hurts Your Lungs"
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "Basics About COPD"
- Cystic Fibrosis Foundation: "About Cystic Fibrosis"
- U.S. National Library of Medicine: "Interstitial Lung Diseases"
- U.S. National Library of Medicine: "Pulmonary Rehabilitation"
- American Lung Association: "Learn About Pneumoconiosis"
- American Lung Association: "Learn About Silicosis"