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October Walk with a Doc: Shortness of Breath

  • Category: General, Pulmonary
  • Posted On:
  • Written By: Boulder Community Health

It’s not yet Halloween, but chilly 30-degree temperatures couldn’t keep walkers away from East Boulder Community Park on Saturday, Oct. 12. Eighty-five participants dressed warmly for the weather to enjoy October’s Walk with a Doc, take a lap or two around the park, and learn about “Shortness of Breath -- Causes and Risk Factors” from Dr. Clark Berngard of Boulder Valley Pulmonology.

Breathlessness, or shortness of breath, describes discomfort or difficulty with breathing. When people experience breathlessness, they describe it in different ways. Common phrases are “short of breath,” “tightness in my chest” or “can’t get enough air.” This feeling can be uncomfortable and scary, but does not mean damage to your lungs.

“As we get older, if we get injured or we’ve been sedentary for a while – our body has less reserve,” said Dr. Berngard at Walk with a Doc. “When we exercise and we haven’t been exercising regularly, we call it aerobic metabolism – which is the good kind of cardiovascular exercise.”

Dr. Berngard said there are a multitude of things that can contribute to shortness of breath.

“Sepsis or even an infection in our joints can cause shortness of breath. Heart and lung conditions are generally two other categories causing shortness of breath; things like asthma, COPD, and acute and chronic blood clots,” Dr. Berngard said. “Conditions of the heart – long-standing hyperternsion and blood pressure – over time can lead to a stiff heart, making it harder for the heart to contract and relax. This can cause blood to back up in the veins with fluid around the heart, (triggering) that similar sensation of shortness of breath.”

With the popularity of vaping, Dr. Berngard reiterated that tobacco smoke is irritating to the lungs.

“Vaping is very common right now, and some of the chemicals in vaping are very toxic,” he said. “Marijuana smoke, often, also makes people feel more anxious and shorter of breath.”

How to Treat Breathlessness

The American Thoracic Society suggests a few ways to avoid shortness of breath, including:

  1. Take your medication as prescribed
  2. Learn breathing techniques
  3. Build up your stamina (strength)
  4. Pace yourself
  5. Try not to hold your breath
  6. Sit in front of a fan
  7. Ask about other medications

Dr. Berngard advises anyone in doubt or concerned about their health to get evaluated by a primary care provider.

In a healthy person, very strenuous exercise, extreme temperatures, bad air quality, obesity and high altitude can all cause shortness of breath. But in non-extreme situations, shortness of breath may be a sign of a medical problem.

“If you feel short of breath beyond what would be expected for your age and your physical condition, get evaluated,” Dr. Berngard said. “If you feel shorter of breath lying down or lying flat, it’s reasonable to get evaluated. If you feel like you have any chest pain or new leg swelling, that’s also reason for evaluation.”

Walk With a Doc October 2019 Shortness of Breath BCH Boulder Community Health Breathlessness Pulmonology Group Walking Fall Colors For those who are cleared to exercise by their medical provider, Dr. Berngard says “exercise is probably paramount and the cornerstone of treatment to shortness of breath.”

“Start with 5 to 10 minutes of simple walking and hand weights, 3 to 5 times a week and then increase the intensity and duration,” he said. “In general, my rule of thumb is ‘If you’re not pushing yourself hard enough to feel short of breath, you’re probably not exercising vigorously enough.’” “It’s OK to feel short of breath when you exercise.”

Next Walk with a Doc

Thank you to Dr. Berngard; Dr. Nelson Trujillo, WWAD’s lead physician and board-certified cardiologist at Boulder Community Health; program coordinator Gina Simmering; the BCH Foundation; and all of our sponsors for making these great and healthy walks possible, including 50 Plus Marketplace, AMR – Boulder County City of Boulder and Longmont, Bobo’s Oat Bars, Boston Scientific, Cedar & Hyde Mercantile, City of Boulder Parks and Recreation, Cultivate, Eldorado Natural Spring Water, Elements Massage, Embassy Suites Boulder, Natural Grocers, Parc Mosaic Apartment Homes, Pedestrian Shops, SomaLogic, Starbucks, Wallaroo Hat Company and Walk with a Doc.

Join us for our next Walk with a Doc on Saturday, Nov. 9 at North Boulder Park (2848 9th Street in Boulder) from 8-9 a.m. Dr. Jason Glowney with Boulder Biologics will talk about “Joint Health & Staying Active.”

Don’t forget that at each Walk with a Doc:

  • BCH’s Clinical Education team will demonstrate “hands-only” CPR techniques you can learn in just minutes!
  • BCH pharmacists will be on hand to answer your medication-related questions.
  • There are free blood pressure checks, free giveaways and free refreshments (including coffee from Starbucks).

For a full list of walks and more details, go to

To learn more about shortness of breath, reference the following links provided by Dr. Berngard: *

Double-sided handout from the American Thoracic Society =

Long-form from the American Lung Association =

* Both links were used as sources for this blog.