There’s nothing like a sprint to the bus stop to remind you of just how quickly you can change your state of mind and body.
One moment, you’re strolling along towards your regular stop. It’s morning and you’re still feeling sleepy. Suddenly, you see your bus rushing towards your stop earlier than normal. Fear and anxiety mount as you calculate that if you don’t rush, you’ll be missing your bus be late for work.
Almost instantly, your mind sharpens and your muscles feel invigorated as you sprint towards the stop and arrive in time to slip through the doors as they close. You were calm and stoic — now, your heart is beating fast and you’re having trouble catching your breath. When you’re exercising, it’s as if you take on a new state of being.
Your breath is a component which changes particularly dramatically during exercise. But how does this change occur? And what does this have to do with one’s well-being?
After all, the feeling of breathing heavily and quickly is not altogether pleasant. In fact, very heavy breathing can be painful. Why is the way that breathing changes during exercise a good thing?
In this article, we’ll be going through the A to Z of breathing and exercise. You’ll leave with an understanding of how breathing works, how breathing changes during exercise, and how you can learn to leverage your breath to optimize your fitness and well-being.
The Breathing System
Your body is composed of a variety of organ systems. Each of these systems has a specific role to play in your body. In turn, these organ systems interact and work with each other to maintain a smooth running of your body, ensuring that you’re able to read this article this very moment. These systems work around the clock, interacting and supporting each other.
The human respiratory system is constantly working to provide your body with oxygen. The entire system is found in your chest and neck area, and is composed of the:
- Trachea: a tube which connects your mouth to your lungs
- Bronchi: your trachea separates into two bronchi, which leads air into the two lungs
- Alveoli: tiny air sacs of the lungs which allow for the exchange of gas between blood and lungs
- Ribs: the bones of your chest area which supports and protects your lungs
- Intercostal muscles: muscles which run between the ribs to help them move as you breathe
- Diaphragm: the large muscle at the base of your rib cage which moves the entire rib cage up and down, and is the primary muscle responsible for breathing.
All of these components work together to push air into your lungs. Your lungs then filter the air through smaller and smaller compartments until oxygen molecules come into contact with your blood through the alveoli. The blood absorbs the oxygen and whisks the oxygen molecules away to feed the many different muscles and organs that depend on oxygen to create energy. How does this process work exactly? The next section looks in depth at how breathing happens.
How Your Mind and Body Create Breath
For the most part, breathing is unconscious. A part of your brain called the autonomic system controls your breath. The autonomic nervous system is the part of the nervous system which controls many “unconscious” internal organs, including the blood vessels, stomach, intestine, liver, kidneys, and digestive glands. It primarily responds to outside stimuli in changing the way in which your body operates. To do this properly, the autonomic system is divided into two control centers: sympathetic and parasympathetic.
The parasympathetic part of the autonomic nervous system takes over when you are in a relaxed state. It takes care of your moment-to-moment functioning so that your body is progressing smoothly. It makes sure that your stomach is digesting food, that your bladder is emptying at regular intervals, and that your breathing rate stays constant and regular.
To ensure sufficient and regular oxygen uptake, the parasympathetic system stimulates your diaphragm. When it’s time to take a breath, the parasympathetic system causes your diaphragm muscle to contract (tighten), which opens up your rib cage. As the space in your rib cage opens up, pressure drops and air is sucked into your lungs.
The air needs to go through some processing before it can reach your bloodstream. Some of this is done earlier, as with the small hairs in your nose to help filter out large particles in the air. Further down in your trachea and the bronchi, mucus helps capture smaller pieces of dust as well as bacteria from the air. There are also billions of small hairs throughout your lungs which sweep back and forth to clean your breaths.
Finally, air reaches your alveoli, which are the smallest compartment of your lungs. These are tiny air sacs which come into contact with your blood and transfer oxygen from the inhaled air to your blood cells. After absorbing oxygen, the blood leaves the lungs and is carried to the heart.
The blood is pumped through your body to provide oxygen to the cells of your tissues and organs. When cells use oxygen, carbon dioxide is produced as a waste product and is transferred to the blood. Your blood carries the carbon dioxide back to your lungs and it is removed when you exhale.
To exhale, the process works backwards. Your parasympathetic system sends a signal to your diaphragm to relax, which makes the muscle bigger. This shrinks space where your lungs are located, squeezing the air out of your body. In this way, your body is able to bring in oxygen and expel carbon dioxide, a waste product.
The sympathetic part of your autonomic nervous system is activated in times of action. One such time is exercise, and in the next section, we’ll explain what happens to your breathing when you exercise.
What Happens To Your Breath During Exercise
When you exercise, your body and mind undergo many changes. First off, your body is moving around more and using more energy in order to power these movements. This energy is derived from breaking down the calories from food eaten recently or from your body’s fat stores. To derive energy from calories, your body uses oxygen as the spark which breaks apart calories. This creates an energy molecule called ATP, which feeds muscles.
Energy creation means that more oxygen is needed. During exercise, the demand for oxygen to the muscles is 15 to 25 times greater than at rest. This is when the second part of your autonomic nervous system takes over your parasympathetic system. The sympathetic system kicks in when your body is in a state of stress, which includes exercise.
To meet the increased demand for oxygen, two major adjustments to blood flow are made: an increase in the amount of blood being pumped per minute by the heart, and a redistribution of blood flow from inactive organs to the active muscle. Your body can supply your muscles with more energy by first pumping blood faster through your veins, which is why your heart rate increases faster than your breathing.
But the heart cannot deliver enough oxygen by itself and needs to recruit the respiratory system to increase breathing rate and get more oxygen into the blood. The sympathetic system thus also increases your breathing rate. You breathe faster and heavier as your body tries to supply your blood with enough oxygen to meet heightened demand and get rid of the increased carbon dioxide produced.
The sympathetic division also stimulates the release of glucose from the liver for energy and slows down non-necessary functions, such as digestion. The response is so strong that heart rate also rises by simply thinking about exercise.
Why Is This Good For You?
The saying goes that if you don’t use it, you lose it. This holds true when it comes to many body functions associated with exercise. The more you exercise, the better your ability to pump blood, breathe, and move around becomes.
The increased heart rate associated with exercise helps prepare the body for stress during later bouts of exercise, as well as during life. When you’re confronted with dangerous or stressful situations, involuntary processes in your body elevate activity in your sympathetic nervous system. This heightened activity leads to changes such as increases in your blood pressure, heart rate, and breathing, and decreases in food digestion.
Constant triggering of the sympathetic system by everyday stresses plays a significant role in the development of heart disease. If you lead a physically inactive lifestyle, you increase your base level of sympathetic activity, which in turn may lead to increased heart-related risks. In other words, by inducing a state where you are breathing hard and your heart is pumping fast, you’re improving your body’s ability to deal with stress and preventing it from triggering these reactions unnecessarily. Exercise helps lowers resting heart rate and protects the cardiovascular system from diseases linked to stress.
Additionally, breathing rate increase during exercise enhances your lung’s ability to take in more oxygen, which increases your lung’s capacity. Since lung capacity decreases as we age, it’s important to keep up exercise to prevent trouble breathing and shortness of breath further down the line.
Exercise also improves mental health, helps to prevent depression, and promotes or maintains positive self-esteem. Moderate-intensity exercise at least 30 minutes per day and at least five days per week is recommended for most people.
To enhance the protections accorded by exercise, it’s a good idea to incorporate stress management tactics into your life to ensure that your heart rate and breathing remains steady even when anxiety hits. Spire tracks your breathing all day to help you understand when you are becoming stressed, and sending you signals for when it’s time to take a break. Something as simple as a few quick breathing exercise can bring your breathing and heart rate back to normal.
Breathing and Health
The body is a complex instrument, with many moving parts. Your increased breathing rate during exercise is only a small piece of a large set of changes which happen during exercise. Knowing how it changes can enhance your appreciation of these complex processes, and hopefully, encourage you to lead a healthier life to protect them. The best thing that you can do to protect your body is physical activity, a healthy diet, and a low stress life. Get your breathing rate up regularly to ensure you enjoy steady, healthy breathing your whole life.