Oxygen Debt

Last Updated: January 7, 2019

Definition - What does Oxygen Debt mean?

Oxygen debt occurs when the body reaches a state of anaerobic respiration during intense exercise. When a person engages in high levels of physical activity, the body cannot distribute oxygen to the cells at a sufficiently rapid pace to keep up with the oxygen demand. This results in an oxygen deficit as the cells continue to produce energy but need additional oxygen to process the lactic acid produced during the process.

The body compensates for this temporary oxygen deficit by taking in more oxygen after a heavy workout. This process is called extra post-exercise oxygen consumption (EPOC). The difference between a person's normal oxygen intake and his or her intake after a strenuous workout is the oxygen debt.

WorkplaceTesting explains Oxygen Debt

Oxygen is used by the cells to produce energy using a process called aerobic respiration. During strenuous exercise, the body cannot deliver enough oxygen to the muscle cells. This status is referred to as an oxygen deficit. Once the body reaches a state of oxygen deficit during exercise, energy is produced using anaerobic respiration.

Anaerobic respiration breaks down glucose into energy that the cells can use to function. The process creates a waste substance called lactic acid. During aerobic respiration, this lactic acid is further broken down into carbon dioxide and water. Oxygen is needed for this step to take place.

When the body lacks the necessary oxygen to complete the process of respiration and eliminate the lactic acid, it is said to be in oxygen debt. After an individual's activity level slows, he or she will take in extra oxygen to gradually repay this oxygen debt, allowing the cells to process the built up lactic acid.

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