Which Muscles Are Used for Strenuous Exercise Breathing?


Strenuous exercise has been shown to help prevent chronic disease in healthy people. It lowers risk of diabetes; helps control weight; releases endorphins contributing to positive mental health and overall well-being; promotes bone strength; to name a few. Strenuous exercise occurs when the heart rate reaches 80-85 percent of maximum heart rate and may cause a person to become quickly out of breath. Because strenuous exercise increases the need of oxygen, the respiratory muscles must work harder and recruit additional muscles to adapt. The diaphragm and intercostals are most important in respiration followed by abdominal and accessory muscles.

The Diaphragm

  • The diaphragm is the primary muscle used for breathing. It is a muscle that separates the thoracic and abdominal cavities at the base of the ribcage. Along with external intercostals muscles, the diaphragm helps expand the ribcage allowing for air to be drawn in. As the muscles relax, the air is pushed out by the change in pressure. When strenuous activity takes place and circulation increases, the diaphragm expands and contracts more frequently and deeply allowing higher rates of oxygen to be inhaled and carbon dioxide to be exhaled.

The Intercostals

  • The intercostals run in various directions in between each rib. The intercostals help move the rib cage in normal and strenuous breathing. As the thoracic cavity expands and contracts to move air in or out, the intercostals aid in breathing by allowing the width of ribs to change. The external intercostals lift the ribs up to help draw air in and the internal intercostals help to force air out of the lungs.

Abdominal Muscles

  • Abdominal muscles are not always used during regular breathing; however during strenuous exercises the abdominal muscles thrust the diaphragm onto the lungs forcing air out. The abdominal muscles are easier to manipulate than the diaphragm, so these muscles aid in deep breathing exercises.

Accessory Muscles

  • The scalene and sternocleidomastoid muscles are muscles found in the neck and help aid in inhalation by helping to expand the upper ribs and collar bone. Other spinal, neck, and chest muscles may be used in labored breathing. If these muscles are consistently being used in the absence of strenuous exercise it may be a sign of respiratory distress and overuse of the accessory muscles may occur.

Breathing Difficulties

  • Breathing disorders that may affect your ability to participate in strenuous exercise include: weakness in the diaphragm or intercostals, respiratory distress syndrome, pneumonia, emphysema, asthma, pulmonary edema or embolism, and airway obstructions. Strenuous exercise is not recommended for people with breathing or heart problems and may cause stroke or heart attack in untrained individuals. If any of these conditions exist or if breathing troubles occur during exercise it is important to consult with a medical professional before initiating or continuing any exercise program.

Examples of Strenuous Exercise

  • Many exercises can increase the heart rate to 80-85 percent of maximum heart rate. Certain exercises like long-distance swimming, cross-country skiing, biking, and running can induce the need for increased oxygen and labored breathing. Short-term exercises like sprinting, power-lifting, hiking up steep inclines, interval or cross-training and jump roping can increase heart rate rapidly.

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