Demand vs. capacity in the healthy pulmonary system

J. A. Dempsey, B. D. Johnson

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

14 Scopus citations


This review examines the lung and chest wall adaptation to exercise in health in persons of widely varying degrees of fitness. First we examine the repulation of breathing and gas exchange in the sedentary young adult who shows a near perfect regulation of alveolar gases, ventilation to perfusion distribution, diffusion equilibrium in the lung during all levels of exercise. This individual's respiratory muscles are also ideally recruited both tonically and phasically so as to meet multi-faceted postural, locomotory and respiratory demands. The topic of plasticity in the pulmonary system is discussed with specific reference to the effects of physical training and athleticism. The key point made here is that both homeostasis of gas transport and mechanical efficiency, with which the pulmonary system meets the demands of muscular exercise will depend upon the ability to maintain a significant margin between demand vs. structural capacity. Pulmonary diffusion capacity and at least some aspects of respiratory muscle function seem to be 'overbuilt' in the young untrained adult. This margin of safety no longer prevails as the athlete becomes fitter. The cause is to be found in the relative lack of adaptability of the lung and chest wall to the training stimulus. Examples of demand coming very close or exceeding the capacity of the pulmonary system include the highly trained young endurance athlete and the aged athlete. Examples of 'failure' or near failure in the pulmonary system's response to exercise include: a) exercise induced arterial hypoxemia via diffusion limitation; b) diaphragmatic fatigue in endurance exercise; c) expiratory flow limitation at V̇(O2)(max.); d) achieving the capacity of inspiratory muscles for pressure generation at V̇(O2)(max.) and e) oxygen cost of breathing which is in excess of 15% of V̇(O2)(max.) in those athletes who experience the most mechanical limitation.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)55-64
Number of pages10
JournalSchweizerische Zeitschrift fur Sportmedizin
Issue number2
StatePublished - Jan 1 1992

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Public Health, Environmental and Occupational Health


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