Holding your breath for long periods of time is not something to be done every day, but it could be an important skill in an emergency.
Most people can hold their breath for somewhere between 30 seconds and up to 2 minutes.
Why try holding your breath longer?
There’s not necessarily an immediate, everyday benefit (other than a conversational icebreaker). But holding your breath can save your life in certain situations, like if you fall off a boat.
The record for holding your breath may be hard to top. According to Guinness World Records, Budimir Šobat of Sisak, Croatia, set the bar high at 24 minutes and 37.36 seconds in March 2021.
Let’s get into what’s happening in your body when you hold your breath, what possible side effects can happen if you don’t do it right, and what benefits you can get out of holding your breath longer.
Here’s what happens to your body when you hold your breath. The times are approximate:
- 0:00 to 0:30. You might feel relaxed as you close your eyes and tune out the world around you.
- 0:30 to 2:00. You’ll start to feel uncomfortable pain in your lungs. The most common misconception about holding your breath is that you’re running out of air — you’re not. Learning to slow your breathing and increase intake during inhalation is part of this. But holding your breath is difficult and dangerous because carbon dioxide (CO₂) is building up in your blood from not exhaling.
- 2:00 to 3:00. Your stomach starts to rapidly convulse and contract. This is because your diaphragm is trying to force you to take a breath.
- 3:00 to 5:00. You’ll begin to feel lightheaded. As CO₂ builds to higher and higher levels, it pushes the oxygen out of your bloodstream and reduces the amount of oxygenated blood traveling to your brain.
- 5:00 to 6:00. Your body will start to shake as your muscles begin to uncontrollably contract. This is when holding your breath can become dangerous.
- 6:00 and longer. You’ll black out. Your brain badly needs oxygen, so it knocks you unconscious so your automatic breathing mechanisms will kick back in. If you’re underwater, you’ll probably inhale water into your lungs, which is life threatening.
Holding your breath too long can have some
- low heart rate from a lack of oxygen
- CO₂ buildup in your bloodstream
- nitrogen narcosis, a dangerous buildup of nitrogen gases in your blood that can make you feel disoriented or inebriated (common among deep-sea divers)
- decompression sickness, which occurs when nitrogen in your blood forms bubbles in your bloodstream instead of clearing out of your blood when water pressure decreases (called “the bends” among divers)
- loss of consciousness, or blacking out
- pulmonary edema, when fluid builds up in the lungs
- alveolar hemorrhage, or bleeding in your lungs
- lung injury that can lead to total lung collapse
- complete loss of blood flow to the heart, which can cause your heart to stop pumping (cardiac arrest)
- buildup of dangerous reactive oxygen species (ROS), which happens due to long periods of low oxygen then breathing oxygen back in at high levels, which can damage DNA
- brain damage from a protein called S100B that breaks out from your bloodstream into your brain through the blood-brain barrier when your cells are damaged
Yes, but not if you’re above water.
When you black out, your body automatically starts breathing again. Your lungs will gasp for air since you’re programmed to inhale and exhale, even if you’re unconscious (like when you sleep).
If you’re underwater, the gasp for air may let in a huge volume of water.
Inhaling water isn’t always fatal if you’re resuscitated by CPR or have the water pumped out of your lungs by emergency responders.
But in most cases, blacking out underwater from holding your breath is deadly.
Holding your breath, as well as generally improving breathing and lung function, has useful, potentially lifesaving benefits, including:
If you’re interested in holding your breath longer, be sure to go slowly. Use common sense: Stop and breathe normally if you’re feeling dizzy or have any of the symptoms of oxygen deprivation.
Here’s a step-by-step guide to train yourself how to hold your breath longer:
- Learn how to take a deep, full breath. This involves your belly moving up and down rather than your shoulders and chest. A full deep inhalation usually takes about 20 seconds before you exhale.
- Do exercises to increase your lung capacity. Try box breathing or diaphragmatic breathing.
- Learn to hold your deep breaths according to CO₂ static apnea tables. Often used by free divers, this practice consists of holding your breath for 1 minute and then resting by breathing normally for 90 seconds, then repeating that hold for another minute. You then gradually reduce your normal breathing rests by 15 seconds each time.
- Learn to store oxygen by following oxygen tables. It consists of holding your breath for 1 minute, breathing normally for 2 minutes, and then increasing how long you hold your breath by 15 seconds between each rest, which remains 2 minutes each time.
- Alternate between CO₂ static apnea and oxygen table exercises each day. Take a few hours off between each exercise.
- Gradually increase the amount of time you hold your breath in your oxygen exercise by 15-second increments. Don’t rush this part. Hold your breath until you start to feel symptoms, like lightheadedness. Increase your times as you feel safe and comfortable.
- Stay still! Moving uses oxygen in your blood, so staying still when you hold your breath preserves the oxygen you’re holding in. You can also try to slow your heart rate using vagal maneuvers.
Holding your breath isn’t just a pool party trick. It can save your life in certain situations and may have other physiological benefits.
If you’d like to learn how to hold your breath longer, don’t rush into it. It can be harmful or deadly if not done with safety in mind. Take your time, and try different techniques to see what works for you.