Your Lungs and Exercise

The lungs are a pair of organs in your chest. When you inhale (breathe in), air enters your lungs, and oxygen from the air moves from the lungs to the blood. At the same time, carbon dioxide (a waste gas) moves from the blood to the lung and is exhaled (breathed out). This whole process is known as gas exchange. It is essential to life, despite the very short microsecond period that it takes to complete the cycle (1).


Apart from the lung, the brain also plays a vital role in this whole system. The brain is the one that controls your breathing rate (how fast or slowly you breathe) by sensing your body’s need for oxygen and its need to get rid of carbon dioxide (1).


Exercise and breathing


Exercise is vital to maintaining a healthy body. The benefits of exercise include the well-being of your physical and mental health. As for physical health, studies found that exercise is not only good for individuals with chronic diseases such as obesity, diabetes, hypertension, and many others, but it is also good for lung health (2, 3).


During exercise, the lungs bring oxygen into the body to provide energy and, at the same time, remove carbon dioxide. while the heart pumps oxygen to the muscles that are exercising (2).


When you exercise, your muscles work harder, and your body uses more oxygen and produces more carbon dioxide. To cope with this extra demand, your breathing has to increase from about 15 times a minute (12 litres of air) when you are resting to about 40–60 times a minute (100 litres of air) during exercise. Your circulation also speeds up to take oxygen to the muscles so that they can keep moving (2).


When your lungs are healthy, you have a large breathing reserve. You may feel ‘out of breath’ after exercise, but you will not be ‘short of breath’. When you have reduced lung function, you may use a large part of your breathing reserve. This may make you feel ‘out of breath’, which can be an unpleasant feeling, but it is not generally dangerous (2).


In fact, all these processes, if practised regularly, will improve lung health. How? By improving lung capacity. Even for people with lung problems such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder (COPD), it is also recommended to exercise frequently and to practise breathing techniques that can help with them, such as the diaphragmatic breathing technique (3, 4).



Individuals with long-term conditions may as well exercise, but most people with such conditions feel demotivated to exercise due to the thought that they might quickly be out of breath. However, if individuals with long-term lung problems do less activity over time, they will become less fit, which makes daily activities even harder. It is best to ask for guidance from a doctor or physiotherapist before starting any exercise. This is to ensure that your exercise plans are in line with your capacity and are safe (2).


Generally, what can be practised is that all exercise programmes must be built up over time to allow the body to adapt. It is important that you exercise at your own pace. If you reach a stage where you are too breathless to talk, then slow down the pace or, if necessary, take a short pause (2). Remember, the more you do, the more you will be able to do!


Intermittent exercises can also help you deal with shortness of breath. In this case, you alternate brief exercises lasting 1–2 minutes with moments of rest (or slower exercise). This is called ‘interval training’ (2).


As an example, if you have COPD, you will have damaged airways. This means that when you breathe out, your airways narrow before you have gotten rid of all the air in your lungs. Many people with COPD find that pursing their lips enables them to breathe out more slowly and effectively. You may also find it easier to walk with braced arms (for example, leaning on a shopping stroller or even grasping the belt of your trousers). Patients with severe lung disease can benefit from using a wheeled walking aid (4).



If you suffer from severe COPD, you may have problems bringing enough oxygen into your body. If this is the case, you may need to take supplementary oxygen during your activity. Your doctor will be able to assess this before you begin a training programme (4).




  1. National Heart, Lung & Blood Institute (NHLBI). U.S. Department of Health & Human Services. How the Lungs Work.
  2. Your lungs and exercise. (2016). Breathe (Sheffield, England), 12(1), 97–100.
  3. Breathing Exercise to Increase Lung Capacity.
  4. Breathing exercise with COPD.