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Oxygen Therapy for Exercise Enthusiasts
Can it improve performance?

Oxygen Therapy for Exercise Enthusiasts - Can it improve performance?
Should you take in extra oxygen?

In the middle of a particularly strenuous workout, I watched a young man reach into his workout bag and pull out a can of oxygen. He then took a couple of deep breaths from the can before going back to his routine.

In my years of training, I've seen plenty of people who use supplemental oxygen. Typically it's clients suffering from conditions like COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease.) As the condition worsens, people are instructed to use supplemental oxygen for at least 15 hours a day, with many using it round the clock. But that wasn't an issue for the young man I had just watched gulp oxygen.

The curiosity got the better of me. I asked him what he had inhaled and why. Was it a prescription for some medical condition? "Nope." He grabbed the can from his bag and tossed it over to me. "It's a can of oxygen to give me a boost during my workouts. Whenever I'm starting to fade, I just take a couple deep breaths and I get my energy back." 

I'm a huge fan of anything that can help someone get a better workout. I decided to do a little digging into supplemental oxygen.

There are quite a few believers. Players in the NFL are regularly seen inhaling oxygen on the sidelines. Companies that sell oxygen make claims like, "increase in energy, quicker recovery from exercise and fatigue, relief of muscle soreness [and] increase in stamina." It's a great marketing pitch, but it's not true.

The simple reason is, you can't get enough oxygen into your blood with such limited exposure. Within a minute or two of breathing the oxygen in, the small benefit disappears. It doesn't stick around nearly long enough to affect healing or recovery.

(You can check out the math for yourself here.)

There have been a few studies that looked into it, but they're fairly limited. One study was conducted at the Pennsylvania State University, College of Medicine. Subjects exercised on a treadmill "to exhaustion." Then they were given a four-minute recovery period where the athletes were divided into three groups. One group breathed room air. The second group breathed 100% oxygen. The third group breathed two minutes or room air followed by two minutes of 100% oxygen.

Researchers found that "breathing 100% oxygen produced no significant difference on the recovery kinetics of minute ventilation or heart rate, or improvement in subsequent performance as measured by duration of exercise." In other words, the oxygen didn't help right after breathing it and it didn't help in recovery. No benefit.

Scientists don't want to waste time or money trying to prove something that simple math shows is impossible. Even the NFL continues to allow it, because they don't consider it a performance-enhancing drug.

That doesn't mean supplemental oxygen shouldn't be used during exercise. If you're suffering from a condition such as COPD, your blood oxygen levels can drop when you're active or exercising. Taking supplemental oxygen can reduce shortness of breath and improve performance. But that's limited to people who've been diagnosed with a specific problem and prescribed oxygen by a doctor.

So that leads to a serious question. If it's been shown to be of no benefit for the typical person, why do people, including big-name sports personalities still use it?

Some may benefit from the placebo effect. They believe something is helping them, so in effect it does. It's the same mentality that has people carrying lucky charms or wearing special clothing. The item itself isn't giving any benefit, but the belief in the item does.

Some do it for financial reasons. They are being paid by the supplement company to promote a product. Some own a piece of the company so they make money when gullible people buy it.

Then there are those who simply don't know any better. They believe the marketing materials that make unfounded claims and twist the facts.

Now you know the truth. When someone tries to sell you supplemental oxygen in any format, as a can you inhale, drops you take or injected into food, turn it away. It provides no benefit and you shouldn't waste your time or money.

Effect of oxygen breathing following submaximal and maximal exercise on recovery and performance.
Pennsylvania State University College of Medicine, Milton S. Hershey Medical Center, Division of Pulmonary/Critical Care Medicine, Hershey 17033.

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