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Experimental Physiology

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Womens’ greater shortness of breath on exercise explained

Women have greater shortness of breath than men when exercising due to greater electrical activation of their respiratory muscles, shows a study published recently in Experimental Physiology.1

This information could be used by researchers and healthcare providers to help identify new treatments to relieve the symptoms of breathlessness and improve exercise capacity for groups such as the elderly and patients with chronic heart and lung disease.

50 healthy, non-smoking men and women aged 20–40 years completed a maximum exercise test on a stationary bicycle. During exercise, the authors monitored participants’ cardiovascular, metabolic and ventilatory responses to exercise using computerised equipment.

At regular intervals during exercise, participants rated the intensity of their breathlessness using a 10-point scale. With a multipair electrode catheter placed in the participants’ oesophagus, authors also recorded the electromyogram of the diaphragm throughout exercise. These measurements were then analysed and compared between men and women.

Lead author Dr Dennis Jensen (McGill University, Canada) said: “Our study uniquely showed that sex differences in activity-related breathlessness could be explained by the awareness of greater electrical activation of the respiratory muscles – specifically the diaphragm – needed to achieve any given ventilation during exercise in healthy young women compared to men.”

“Our findings indicated that greater electrical activation of the respiratory muscles during exercise in women is needed to compensate for their biologically smaller lungs, airways and breathing muscles.”

Future research is needed to extend the findings to other groups of men and women, such as those that are overweight or obese, say the authors.


1. Schaeffer M, Mendonca C, Levangie M, Anderson R, Taivassalo T, Jensen D. Physiological mechanisms of sex differences in exertional dyspnea: role of neural respiratory motor drive. Exp Physiol 2013.

Published on: November 20, 2013

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