Our lungs are made up of millions of tiny balloons that inflate and deflate with each breath. So just as a balloon can become less expandable after repeated use, our lungs also become less expandable. As such, Dr. Buhr explains that as we age, our lung function naturally declines, in the same way that our joints become sticky or our bones become more brittle—it’s just a matter of wear and tear.
But decreased lung capacity is not the reason why an older person may breathe more heavily when moving or exercising. “The absolute number, if you’re going to do a lung function test, isn’t the only thing that matters,” says Dr. Buhr. “Lungs aren’t the only reason someone has shortness of breath.”
When we exercise regularly, our muscles become more efficient at using oxygen. But it takes a lot of energy to keep our muscles in this efficient shape. That’s why taking a break from exercise can feel like it’s making you jump and limit: 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,” says Dr. Buhr. “And because of that, you have to breathe harder to bring in more oxygen to do the same exercise you were doing before.”
So it is normal for lung function to decline to a certain extent with age. But the fact that you may not be exercising as much as you age is to blame for why you struggle to breathe while exercising. Which makes maintaining or improving your cardiorespiratory fitness just one of many reasons to build a lifelong relationship with exercise.
Want to get in touch with your body and your breath? Incorporating the following mobility movements into your routine will help you breathe easier: