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Exercise and the lungs November 02, 2006 5:42 AM

Exercise and the need for oxygen

Man on chair diagramThe amount of air you need to breathe in depends upon how active you are. Sitting down, you take in only about 15 breaths a minute, giving you around 12 litres of air (a litre is about 1 pints). From this your lungs will extract just one fifth of a litre of oxygen. Exercising flat out, a top-class athlete can expect to increase his or her breathing rate to around 40 to 60 breaths a minute, taking in an incredible 100 to 150 litres of air and extracting around five litres of oxygen every single minute!

Even those of us with more modest goals need to double our lung intake when we exercise and our lungs must be able to respond to our body's increasing demands for oxygen.

During exercise both breathing and heart rate increase. The muscles send messages to the breathing centre in your brain that they need more oxygen. In turn, your brain will send signals to the muscles that control breathing - your diaphragm and the muscles between your ribs - so that they shorten and relax more often, causing you to take more breaths. More oxygen will be absorbed from your lungs and carried to the muscles you are using for exercise, mainly in your arms and legs.

Why do muscles need more oxygen?

To become more active your muscles will need to produce more energy. They do this by breaking down glucose from your food, but to do this they need oxygen. If there is too little oxygen they will try to produce energy in a different way. But this can lead to a build-up of a chemical called lactic acid - something that many athletes are all too familiar with. Athletes train so that their lungs and muscles become more efficient and it takes longer for lactic acid to build up.

What happens when your lungs don't work properly?

While everyone can benefit from exercise to strengthen their lungs and muscles, people with long-term lung problems, such as COPD, may find that they cannot provide enough oxygen for their muscles to perform even small amounts of activity, such as walking. The lungs may work so hard to keep up that you feel breathless.

Physical Training

Through exercise you can train your body so that more oxygen is delivered to your muscles and there is less build-up of lactic acid - just as athletes do. Exercise is important in keeping lungs healthy. Unfortunately, many people with long-term lung problems are afraid to exercise. This is partly because they are worried that being breathless may be harming them. This isn't true. By gradually building up the exercise you take you can help to improve your breathing and feel better. Even people with severe lung problems benefit a lot from small amounts of exercise so it really is worth keeping as active as possible.

Begin slowly by doing arm and leg movements while you are sitting down. Then set yourself targets for walking about, from room to room, going to the front door, the bottom of the garden, down the road and so on. It's surprising how quickly you'll be able to do more.

Breathing control

Breathing control concentrates on using the lower chest with relaxation of the upper chest and shoulders. This encourages you to use the diaphragm more efficiently by consciously allowing your abdomen (tummy) to move out as you breathe in, rather than allowing it to be sucked inwards. Practice breathing control with one hand on your abdomen, as shown in the diagram above. Breathing control will help slow down your breathing rate and will reduce the feeling of anxiety if you do become breathless. Discuss with your GP or chest specialist the possibility of being referred to a physiotherapist to help you teach breathing control and breathing exercises.

Can oxygen help you to exercise?

Some people with chronic lung disease can exercise more if they receive extra oxygen. Oxygen for use in the home is readily available on the NHS. You might have to pay for a portable oxygen system to carry around with you outside the house, although many lung specialists have local arrangements to help out with this.

There are a variety of portable oxygen suppliers, so shop around to find the one most suitable for your needs. Not everyone benefits from oxygen, so it is very important to be assessed by a specialist before starting treatment.

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