Why Can’t I Breathe When I Workout?

Many people ask us “Why can’t I breathe when I workout?” Here’s the answer, plus how to improve your breathing during exercise.


Exercising is a great way to stay healthy and in shape, but some people experience difficulty breathing during physical activity. This can be alarming and cause reduced performance, so it’s important to understand why it happens in order to address the issue effectively. In this article we’ll discuss some of the possible causes of breathlessness and tips on how to improve your breathing during physical activity.

Causes of Shortness of Breath During Exercise

Shortness of breath during exercise can be a sign of a serious medical condition, such as asthma, COPD, or cardiovascular disease. However, it is not uncommon to experience difficulty breathing during a workout. There are a few common causes of shortness of breath during exercise, ranging from a lack of physical fitness to underlying medical conditions. In this article, we will discuss the various causes of shortness of breath during exercise.


Asthma is a condition where there is narrowing of the airways, which can cause difficulty breathing during physical activity. It is normal to experience some degree of difficulty in breathing while exercising as the body works harder to take in oxygen and expel carbon dioxide. However, if this breathlessness lasts afterwards it may be caused by asthma. Symptoms vary from person to person but usually they will include: wheezing, chest tightness, coughing and shortness of breath that gets worse during activity. It is important to seek medical advice if asthma is suspected as appropriate treatments are available which can help control symptoms and maintain normal activity levels. Furthermore, lifestyle changes such as breathing techniques and warm up activities before exercise can also help reduce the risk of an asthma attack triggered by physical exertion.


Allergies, especially seasonal allergies, can be a common cause of shortness of breath when exercising outdoors. Symptoms of allergies that can cause breathing issues include watery eyes, runny nose, sneezing and headaches. Allergens such as pollen and dust mites can cause inflammation in the airways to the lungs which can lead to difficulty breathing.

Seasonal allergic rhinitis (hay fever), or an allergic reaction to indoor allergens such as pet dander or mold, may reduce lung function by 5-15% and contribute to feelings of air hunger associated with exercise-induced bronchoconstriction (EIB). To prevent EIB due to allergies it is important to use appropriate medications before exercise if you suffer from seasonal allergies and avoid exercising outdoors when allergens are high. Additionally, reducing allergen exposure by keeping windows closed and using a high quality air filter system may reduce symptoms as well as using non-medicinal treatments such as nasal irrigation during allergy season may help alleviate symptoms that lead to difficulty breathing while exercising.


Anemia is a condition in which the body does not have enough healthy red blood cells to carry oxygen to the muscles and tissues. Red blood cells contain hemoglobin, which is an oxygen-carrying protein. When there are not enough red blood cells or if they have an abnormally low amount of hemoglobin, it can lead to shortness of breath and other symptoms during physical exercise.

Common causes of anemia include low levels of iron or vitamins B12 and B6 in the diet, gastrointestinal bleeding, and kidney diseases. Women are also more likely to be affected by this condition than men due to menstruation or use of birth control medications. If you are experiencing shortness of breath when you exercise, it is important that you have a health care professional evaluate you for signs and symptoms associated with anemia.

Cardiovascular Disease

Cardiovascular disease, also referred to as heart disease, is any disorder that affects the cardiovascular system. This can range from coronary artery disease, poor blood circulation, and arrhythmias to congenital heart defects. It is one of the most common causes of labored breathing while exercising. Someone with a cardiovascular condition may be more prone to breathing difficulties because the heart is not able to adequately pump enough oxygen-rich blood around the body. In addition, people with this condition may be more sensitive to changes in body temperature and atmospheric conditions than those without a cardiovascular condition. Symptoms could include extreme fatigue even after mild exercise or difficulty getting enough air into their lungs during physical activity. If you are experiencing shortness of breath or any other abnormal or concerning symptoms during or after exercise, it is best to consult with your physician.


Anxiety may be a contributing factor to shortness of breath when exercising. When people experience anxiety or panic, their respiration accelerates, resulting in deeper and more frequent breaths. As a result, the amount of carbon dioxide in their body gets lower and the oxygen levels increase. This can lead to an imbalance in the amounts of carbon dioxide and oxygen in the blood, which can cause shortness of breath. Physical exercise can also induce anxiety in some individuals and thus could be a culprit for shortness of breath during exercise. If you’re someone who experiences physical or mental anxiety before or during your workouts, it is important to talk with your physician about how best to manage it. Taking preventive measures like deep breathing exercises before working out may help prevent this episode of hypoventilation from occurring again.

Prevention and Treatment

Shortness of breath during exercise can be caused by a variety of factors, ranging from improper form to asthma to underlying heart or lung conditions. It is important to identify the cause of your breathlessness in order to find proper treatment and/or prevention measures. In this article, we will discuss the different causes of breathlessness during exercise, as well as prevention and treatment options.


Asthma is a chronic condition in which the airways become blocked or narrowed due to inflammation. This blockage leads to symptoms such as coughing, wheezing and shortness of breath. Asthma affects over 25 million people in the United States alone and can greatly reduce one’s quality of life.

Certain physical activity can trigger an asthma attack, leading to difficulty breathing while exercising. People with asthma should speak with their healthcare provider about how to best manage their symptoms, as there are several treatment options available. These may include taking medications regularly, avoiding triggers, having an inhaler available during exercise, warming up before working out and tracking your health regularly. Taking these steps can help people with asthma stay healthy and active without having difficulty breathing when exercising.


Allergies can be a major contributor to asthma-like symptoms when exercising. Allergic rhinitis, also known as hay fever, is an allergic reaction to dust, animal dander and pollen particles in the air when breath is taken in. Allergic rhinitis can also develop caused by sensitivities to foods, chemicals and other environmental factors. Symptoms of allergic rhinitis include a runny or stuffy nose, sneezing, coughing and shortness of breath due to the buildup of fluid which makes it harder for the lungs to get oxygen into them. To help prevent allergic rhinitis when exercising outdoors, wear glasses or goggles to limit exposure to pollen particles and cover your mouth with a bandana or mask. In addition, try an antihistamine medication before exercise if you are very sensitive and are likely to have an allergy flare-up. If allergies are detected but are not severe enough for medication intervention, nonprescription saline sprays or rinses may be helpful in washing out any dust or pollen from the nose followed by use of a steroid nasal spray that is prescribed by your doctor.


Anemia is a condition where the red blood cells are fewer than normal or don’t work properly. It can be caused by not having enough iron in your diet, or an underlying medical condition such as kidney disease or celiac disease. Anemia can also be caused by heavy menstrual bleeding or excessive blood loss from surgery or trauma. Symptoms of anemia may include fatigue, pale skin, headaches, shortness of breath when exercising and dizziness.

If you experience difficulty breathing when working out and suspect that you may have anemia, consult your doctor for a proper diagnosis. Treatment for anemia usually involves supplements of iron and B-vitamins and lifestyle adjustments such as increasing the amount of iron-rich foods in your diet (such as beef and dark green leafy vegetables) and avoiding alcohol. In more severe cases, other treatments like blood transfusions may be necessary to boost red blood cell levels. Additionally, your doctor will recommend ways to manage the condition during exercise to avoid shortness of breath. These may include gradually increasing your intensity during workouts over time instead of pushing yourself too hard right away, taking breaks throughout exercise sessions if needed and using supplemental oxygen if available. In some cases, where underlying conditions are causing anemia treatment will also address that condition to improve overall health.

Cardiovascular Disease

Those who suffer from heart and lung conditions, such as coronary artery disease, congestive heart failure, or asthma, may experience short of breath while exercising. These conditions can put a strain on your cardiovascular system as the heart and lungs work in tandem to get enough oxygen to your cells. In some cases, medication can help to manage symptoms and increase the ability to exercise.

Cardiovascular disease is one of the primary causes of breathing difficulties for athletes and exercisers alike. The most common forms include coronary artery disease (CAD), which narrows the arteries supplying blood to the heart; congestive heart failure (CHF), an inability of the heart to pump enough blood; and valvular cardiomyopathy, in which valves don’t open or close properly. All of these can cause functional impairment when exercising due to reduced oxygen delivery through constrained blood vessels.

To prevent cardio-related breathing problems from developing or worsening during exercise, it’s important that you are regularly assessed by a specialist before you begin participating in any type of physical activity. You should also take special care if you have a pre-existing condition such as hypertension (high blood pressure), diabetes or obesity. If you already suffer from any form of cardiovascular disease including CAD, CHF or valvular myopathy then speak with your doctor about what activities are safe for you; they might recommend only low intensity workouts such as walking at an incline instead of running on flat surfaces or engaging in high impact sports like basketball or football. Additionally, medications such as beta-blockers or ACE inhibitors could be prescribed by your doctor depending on your condition so always seek medical advice before starting any type of workout program


When your body is working out, the body’s systems are taxed to their limit. During this time you may experience a decrease in oxygen as your body’s focus is dedicated to strength and endurance and not necessarily breath. If you begin to experience feelings of anxiety such as a restricted chest, shallow breathing, lightheadedness or a racing heart, these can be signs of hyperventilation. Hyperventilation is an unconscious and rapid breathing pattern which can reduce the oxygen levels in your blood stream leading to feelings of lightheadedness or panic.

To prevent this from happening it is important to prepare for workouts by building up gradual aerobic activity days prior so that your lungs have time to adjust. Regular hydration throughout the day and adequate warm ups prior to exerting yourself can also greatly benefit preventing an attack of hyperventilation during exercise. Finally, practicing deep diaphragmatic breathing prior starting activities or during rest breaks will help oxygenate the body and help keep muscle cramping at bay as well as calming down unwanted nervousness.

In the event that symptoms still occur while exercising, it’s important to determine if they are related with fear/anxiety or if they may be warning signs of other physical concerns such as asthma or COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease). Consulting with a healthcare provider if symptoms persist could provide valuable insight on potential conditions needing evaluation or treatment which could restore quality life for daily activities.


In conclusion, it is important to recognize the main causes of difficulty breathing during exercise: inadequate warm up and cool down, lack of physical conditioning, insufficient oxygen intake, air pollution, and allergies or asthma. Once these causes can be identified, they can often be addressed with targeted interventions such as warming up before exercising or checking air quality levels when exercising outdoors. An assessment by a medical professional can rule out any underlying health conditions like asthma or allergies that may be causing shortness of breath with exercise. With improved understanding and management of the potential causes of difficulty breathing during exercise, athletes can more effectively monitor their performance and seek the help they need for optimal performance.

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