How many times have you rushed up one flight of stairs and arrived at the top feeling breathless? It’s especially embarrassing if you consider yourself fairly fit and then as you arrive huffing and puffing at the top of the stairs you bump into someone you know!
You may question your fitness level and decide that you must work out more, or harder if you already consider yourself a gym bunny.
Well, rest assured, even the fittest people can get winded by the sudden task of running up a flight of stairs quickly, because physical fitness has little to do with it. Neither has it anything to do with whether you have warmed up properly.
So why does this happen when we have just walked up one flight of stairs but we feel as if we have run 5k?
When you approach a flight of stairs, with the intention of rushing up them quickly, our brain tells our body to stop breathing.
We tend to stop or slow our breathing when concentrating on a specific task for a short period of time. When you’re in a rush with something else on your mind you approach the stairs with the aim to sprint up them quickly.
This activates a specific program in your brain — let’s call it the “concentration program”. Research indicates that you slow or even stop your breathing as you approach the stairs, and maybe even continue this for the entire flight.
The outcome is that we combine a small burst of oxygen consumption by our muscles with a small burst of oxygen deprivation through our reduced respiration. Together, these two forces make our blood oxygen level fall. Once you’ve climbed the stairs, the “concentration program” ends as you are one step closer to the specific task in hand.
Then your brain quickly notices the low blood oxygen level and it sends the opposite signal, which initiates rapid breathing to replace the missing oxygen.
It’s actually a spike in carbon dioxide in our blood that triggers this, but oxygen and carbon dioxide concentrations in our blood are inversely related in all normal circumstances.
So why do we stop breathing right when we should be breathing more?
This reflex evolved to keep our bodies still when focusing on a physical task that requires concentration and precision. The key to being precise with these coordinated physical tasks is stillness and quiet concentration.
By slowing or stopping our breathing, we reduce the background movements of our bodies and, hopefully, achieve better accuracy in the execution of our carefully planned action. This is one of the reasons why people don’t always breathe properly when performing new exercises at the gym or in a Pilates class! You may have noticed that your instructor often reminds you to breathe!
Some people even report apnea (temporary suspension of breathing) when they are focusing on specific tasks that requires momentary concentration.
Try this: Next time you are dashing up a flight of stairs whilst focusing on something you are just about to do, concentrate on your breathing. Deliberately take deep breaths as you approach a flight of stairs, and force yourself to continue to breathe as you scale the steps.
If you do this every time, it should become a habit and hopefully you’ll never arrive huffing and puffing again.