Overweight and shortness of breath when exercising: which is the best activity and how?

Your doctor recommends physical activity but your breathing is a real problem: there's no pleasure at all. Hugues Gauchez, specialising in respiratory rehabilitation, helps me explain how to get back to exercising when you are out of breath at the slightest effort.

Overweight and shortness of breath when exercising: which is the best activity and how?

Weight loss is sometimes one of the main motivations for starting to exercise again, but as soon as you start working out, breathing is uncomfortable and you can't get enough air. Stress? Smoker? Diet? That's right! Shortness of breath is not always due to weight. Find out how to solve the problem so you can exercise.

First a nurse, he then became a physio and quickly specialised in respiratory rehabilitation. Hugues Gauchez is fascinated by how the body works: he is learning constantly. In his opinion: "It's essential for treating patients". He shares his expertise about learning to breath again.


Hugues Gauchez is reassuring: "Shortness of breath is not an illness." It's quite common to feel breathless when exercising, or afterwards. It is normal to feel breathless when doing endurance activities, walking quickly, cardio workouts, etc.: When you exercise, the muscles need more oxygen to function. The nose and lungs act as filters and distributors to get oxygen into the bloodstream. The heart then pumps the blood, distributing oxygen to the muscles. When you feel breathless, your cardiovascular system is adapting to the intensity of the effort on the body. Are you following?

Overweight and shortness of breath when exercising: which is the best activity and how?

When is shortness of breath a problem? What are the symptoms?

It is a problem when you are breathless after the slightest effort. Hugues Gauchez adds: "It is pathological when it becomes distressing, when you need to catch your breath all the time, when walking, climbing stairs or speaking, for example. "

Tests exist to assess the degree of discomfort. Hugues even talks about the degree of respiratory disability or impairment.Most of the time they are conducted by a doctor or physio specialised in respiratory rehabilitation: "There is a 6-minute walking test which calculates how far the person is able to walk without feeling uncomfortable. There is also the chair test which has 2 parts. First the patient must do as many flex exercises as possible in a minute. Then as many flex exercises as possible in 3 minutes: if they are under 50 flex exercises they are out of shape, around 70 they are sedentary, 90 to 95 is an athlete's score."

What causes shortness of breath?

According to Hugues Gauchez, excess weight is not the only reason for pathological shortness of breath. Smoking, stress, diet and age also contribute to shortness of breath. That said, excess weight is one of the main reasons: "When you are overweight, it is more difficult to move your body - both for weight and occupied space.For example, when the belly circumference is over 90 cm, it is a metabolic disease. The ribs are stretched apart and the diaphragm is flattened.

Less mobility in the diaphragm - the breathing muscle - increases breathing frequency and reduces the amount of air absorbed. Are you still following? That's the beginning of a vicious circle: more and more air is taken in to increase oxygen levels but it is never enough. What's more, not enough carbon dioxide is evacuated. What happens next? Hyperventilation - even faintness. 

When you have “pathological” breathlessness, you tend to avoid physical activity to avoid the discomfort. That's perfectly normal. Hugues Gauchez reminds us that it's important to exercise regularly to build muscle! We need muscles to carry our body, to stay independent and to be able to move around on our own. The more we move, the more mobile we are.It's important to go "step by step" as Hugues says. Progress with patience, regularity and above all with medical supervision, is more reassuring.

What is shortness of breath on exertion?

It means you feel breathless when you make any effort, as soon as you move. What does it feel like? You are doing exercises that put strain on your heart and suddenly you feel tightness that prevents you from catching your breath. Hugues Gauchez describes how this feels in the body: "At the medical level we speak of "dyspnoea" which means dysfunctional breathing. This is respiratory discomfort with an unpleasant sensation of breathlessness, which also has a sensory and emotional element. Patients suffering from shortness of breath when exercising feel fear of not being able to breath properly. This is called ventilatory stress. Breathing is usually unconscious. In this case, the person is conscious of their breathing. It becomes oppressive - like drowning.

Overweight and shortness of breath when exercising: which is the best activity and how?


Asthma sufferers can and should exercise!Dr. Cécile Olivier, lung specialist, explains why. 

Overweight and shortness of breath when exercising: which is the best activity and how?

How do I know if I'm overweight?

According to physio Hugues, the body mass index or "BMI" (divide weight by height squared), is often questioned but remains the best overweight indicator, and most importantly, to what degree.The difference between being overweight and obese is measured by the BMI. You're overweight when the BMI is over 25. You are is obese when the BMI is over 30. Over 30, it is severe obesity, then morbid obesity. Regardless of the degree, movement with appropriate supervision is always recommended.

There are also impedance scales that assess the percentage of fat and muscle in your body.

Overweight and shortness of breath when exercising:which is the best activity and how?

How can I tell if my shortness of breath is due to my weight?

Our specialist recommends you consult your GP. They will look for possible metabolic disease and links between breathlessness and other disorders due to age or lifestyle (diabetes, smoking, etc.). After this consultation, you will be sent to a cardiologist or lung specialist for effort tests.

Solutions for easier breathing if you are overweight?

There are 2 ways to improve your breathing: respiratory rehabilitation and muscular fitness.

According to Hugues: “The goal is to restore optimum mobility to the respiratory pump so the patient can take in the amount of air they need for each respiratory cycle.

For respiratory rehabilitation, physios use cardio activities like walking, exercise bikes or cross trainers and rowing machines. They also give exercises to strengthen muscles that encourage more upright posture to optimise breathing.

Precautions for exercising with shortness of breath : ” Choose gentle activities. Do not exceed the maximum heart rate: subtract 220 - age. Always consult your doctor and have an effort test before taking up exercise. Cardiologists recommend that intense exercise should not exceed 50 seconds.

Start slowly and stick to it over time with the right number of repetitions. Always warm up with joint mobility and stretching.

What are the best activities for people who suffer from shortness of breath when exercising?

Moving increases quality of life. According to Hugues, walking is the most complete activity: “ Every level of the spine and all the muscles and organs are active. The respiratory and cardiac pumps function. Head carriage is improved and posture is upright. It even creates an abdominal massage that optimises bowel movement.

Breathing exercises also help to improve breathing: “They restore osteoarticular mobility. Activities such as yoga, Pilates, sophrology and relaxation improve mobility, particularly for the thoracic cage. And that's essential for improving breathing.”

A body that becomes more mobile feels better and is trained to exercise.

Overweight and shortness of breath when exercising: which is the best activity and how?

Exercising and health:

“Exercise is vital. It's good for your health”: We hear it all the time. We know it's true. Yet it can be so difficult to get started! We're going to explain why exercising is so important for your health.

Physical fitness depends on personal criteria.It depends on heredity and lifestyle habits which are not always good for us like smoking, lack of sleep, a rich diet and lack of hydration.It can be difficult to change these parameters. But moving is the best remedy for better health and quality of life. Consult health and sport specialists. It's never too late to feel better.

Overweight and shortness of breath when exercising: which is the best activity and how?


Tips writer

Personal sports coach and a big fan of artistic activities. A constant supporter with great admiration of major sports events!

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