Exercise-induced arterial hypoxaemia and the mechanics of breathing in healthy young women

J Physiol. 2013 Jun 15;591(12):3017-34. doi: 10.1113/jphysiol.2013.252767. Epub 2013 Apr 15.


The purpose of this study was to characterize exercise-induced arterial hypoxaemia (EIAH), pulmonary gas exchange and respiratory mechanics during exercise, in young healthy women. We defined EIAH as a >10 mmHg decrease in arterial oxygen tension ( ) during exercise compared to rest. We used a heliox inspirate to test the hypothesis that mechanical constraints contribute to EIAH. Subjects with a spectrum of aerobic capacities (n = 30; maximal oxygen consumption ( ) = 49 ± 1, range 28-62 ml kg(-1) min(-1)) completed a stepwise treadmill test and a subset (n = 18 with EIAH) completed a constant load test (~85% ) with heliox gas. Throughout exercise arterial blood gases, oxyhaemoglobin saturation ( ), the work of breathing (WOB) and expiratory flow limitation (EFL) were assessed. Twenty of the 30 women developed EIAH with a nadir and ranging from 58 to 88 mmHg and 87 to 96%, respectively. At maximal exercise, was inversely related to (r = -0.57, P < 0.05) with notable exceptions where some subjects with low aerobic fitness levels demonstrated EIAH. Subjects with EIAH had a greater (51 ± 1 vs. 43 ± 2 ml kg(-1) min(-1)), lower end-exercise (93.2 ± 0.5 vs. 96.1 ± 0.3%) and a greater maximal energetic WOB (324 ± 19 vs. 247 ± 23 J min(-1)), but had similar resting pulmonary function compared to those without EIAH. Most subjects developed EIAH at submaximal exercise intensities, with distinct patterns of hypoxaemia. In some subjects with varying aerobic fitness levels, mechanical ventilatory constraints (i.e. EFL) were the primary mechanism associated with the hypoxaemia during the maximal test. Mechanical ventilatory constraints also prevented adequate compensatory alveolar hyperventilation in most EIAH subjects. Minimizing mechanical ventilatory constraints with heliox inspiration partially reversed EIAH in subjects who developed EFL. In conclusion, healthy women of all aerobic fitness levels can develop EIAH and begin to do so at submaximal intensities. Mechanical ventilatory constraints are a primary mechanism for EIAH in some healthy women and prevent reversal of hypoxaemia in women for whom it is not the primary mechanism.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Arteries / physiopathology
  • Biomechanical Phenomena
  • Blood Gas Analysis
  • Exercise*
  • Female
  • Helium
  • Humans
  • Hypoxia / blood
  • Hypoxia / etiology
  • Hypoxia / physiopathology*
  • Oxygen
  • Oxygen Consumption
  • Physical Fitness
  • Pulmonary Ventilation*
  • Work of Breathing*


  • Helium
  • heliox
  • Oxygen