Why It May Feel So Much Freaking Harder To Breathe While Exercising As You Get Older

Photo: Getty Images/ Clarissa Leahy
Getting short of breath while exercising may seem like a given as you get older. But in reality, your ability to power your movement with your breath for decades into the future is more under your control than you may think. The technical term for this is lung function, or “the amount of air that our lungs are capable of moving with every given breath,” says Russell Buhr, MD, PhD, a pulmonologist at UCLA Health. When you get a lung function test, you’ll get a score that shows how much air you can inhale and exhale.

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Our lungs are made up of millions of little balloons that deflate and inflate with every breath. So just as a balloon might get less stretchy after repeated use, our lungs get a little less stretchy, too. As such, Dr. Buhr explains that our lung function naturally decreases as we age, in the same way that our joints get stickier or our bones get more brittle—it’s just a matter of wear and tear.

But diminished lung capacity is not necessarily the culprit for why an older person may breathe more heavily while moving or exercising. “The absolute number, if you were to go get a lung function test, is not the only thing that matters,” Dr. Buhr says. “Lungs are not the only reason someone will get short of breath.”

When we exercise regularly, our muscles become efficient at using oxygen. But it takes a lot of energy to keep our muscles in this efficient shape. Which is why it can feel like taking a break from exercise sets you back leaps and bounds: If you don’t use it, you lose that efficient system. “As your muscles become less efficient, they need to burn more oxygen to do the same amount of work,” Dr. Buhr says. “And so because of that, you're going to have to breathe harder to bring in more oxygen in order to do the same exercise you were doing before.”

So as you age, diminishing lung function is natural to a certain extent. But fact that you might not be exercising as much is just as likely a culprit for why you breathe harder while exercising when you get older. Which makes maintaining or improving your cardiorespiratory fitness just one among the many reasons it’s so important to cultivate a lifelong relationship with exercise.

Want to get in touch with your body and your breath? Incorporating mobility flows like this one below into your routine will help you keep breathing easy:

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