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Why Am I Out of Breath?

Climbing Stairs

You do Pilates. You go running. You consider yourself to be in good shape. Then, one day, you find yourself out of breath while carrying groceries up a flight of stairs. What is going on?

"It can be normal," says John Ryan, MD, a cardiologist with University of Utah Health. "This is what we call exertional intolerance. It happens when you elevate your heart suddenly, and your body needs more oxygen."

Right now, the American Heart Association recommends at least 150 minutes a week of moderate exercise, or 75 minutes a week of vigorous exercise. That's roughly 30 minutes a day five days a week. It's an easy goal to attain, and it cuts the risk of heart attack and stroke. However, it doesn't guarantee you still won't find yourself winded at times.

Climbing stairs is a completely different motion than walking on flat land. Not only are you fighting gravity, but you also are essentially doing lunges, which are difficult if they aren't a normal part of your workout routine. To reduce the impact of stairs, you may want to add lunges or add time on a stair machine to your workout.

Of course, you should pay attention to the signals your body is sending you. "You may be out of breath because you are out of shape, or because of age," says Ryan. "If it's a common occurrence or persistent, you may want to consider getting more exercise or making lifestyle changes like losing weight to make exertion easier."

So, When Should You Seek Medical Advice on Breathlessness?

"If it's impacting your daily activities, it's time to see a doctor," says Ryan. "If you are avoiding stairs because you always get winded, or you are avoiding walking distances, there may be a problem. Additionally, if it persists despite your efforts to recondition yourself, then it may not just be age and it could be worth getting evaluated."

"We can easily determine if your breathlessness [also called dyspnea] is being caused by a medical condition though stress tests, EKGs, and other diagnostic measures," he says. "From there, we can find a treatment that will help your breathing and reduce the likelihood of breathing problems."