Lung capacity shows how much air your lungs can hold. Performing breathing exercises can improve your lung capacity over time.

Your lung capacity is the total amount of air your lungs can hold. Our lung capacity and lung function typically start to decrease slowly, approximately after the age of 35 years.

Some conditions, such as asthma, can significantly speed up the loss of lung capacity and function. This leads to difficulty in breathing and shortness of breath.

Exercises exist that can help maintain lung capacity, making it easier to keep your lungs healthy and get your body the oxygen it needs.

Diaphragmatic breathing, or “belly breathing,” engages the diaphragm, which is supposed to do most of the heavy lifting when it comes to breathing.

This technique is particularly helpful in people with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). With this condition, the diaphragm isn’t as effective and could be strengthened. The technique is best to use when you are feeling rested.

If you have COPD, ask a doctor or respiratory therapist to show you how to use this exercise for the best results. Keep in mind that while breathing exercises may improve COPD symptoms over time, there’s no scientific evidence they can reverse the condition.

According to the COPD Foundation, you should do the following to practice diaphragmatic breathing:

  1. Relax your shoulders and sit back or lie down.
  2. Place one hand on your belly and one on your chest.
  3. Inhale through your nose for 2 seconds, feeling the air move into your abdomen and feeling your stomach move out. Your stomach should move more than your chest does.
  4. Breathe out for 2 seconds through pursed lips while pressing on your abdomen.
  5. Repeat.

Pursed-lips breathing can slow your breathing, reducing the work needed by keeping your airways open longer. This makes it easier for the lungs to function and improves oxygen and carbon dioxide exchange.

This breathing exercise is often easier for beginners than diaphragmatic breathing, and you can do it at home even if no one has shown you how. It can be practiced at any time.

To practice the pursed-lips breathing technique:

  1. Inhale slowly through your nostrils.
  2. Purse your lips as if pouting or about to blow on something.
  3. Breathe out as slowly as possible through pursed lips. This should take at least twice as long as it did to breathe in.
  4. Repeat.

With alternate nostril breathing, a practice that comes from yoga, you inhale through one nostril while closing the other, then switch and repeat. Try to do this slowly and smoothly while staying aware of your breath.

Follow these steps:

  • Sit comfortably and place your left hand on your knee.
  • Lift your right hand to your nose, exhale, and close your right nostril with your thumb.
  • Inhale through your left nostril and then close it with your fingers.
  • Release the right nostril and exhale, then inhale through the right nostril and close it.
  • Exhale through the left nostril.
  • Repeat for up to 5 minutes and end by exhaling through the left nostril.

Many things can lead to a decrease in lung capacity over time. The main culprit is usually aging, as our bodies naturally slow down with time.

Other potential causes include:

  • chronic lung diseases such as COPD, emphysema, and asthma
  • having obesity
  • not being physically active
  • chest wall deformities
  • having a high waist-to-hip ratio
  • vitamin D deficiency
  • pregnancy

Lung capacity and function can vary widely from person to person and even change throughout our lifetimes. The maximum amount of air the lungs can hold is around 6 liters (L) or about 1.5 gallons.

With age, the muscles used for breathing can weaken, and your lungs lose some of their elasticity. This decreases how much air your lungs can hold and how effectively they exchange oxygen and carbon dioxide.

Doctors measure lung capacity using a test called spirometry. The results of the test can help diagnose conditions such as COPD and asthma. They can also show how well treatments are working.

Spirometry tests can show:

  • Forced expiratory volume (FEV1): the amount of air you can exhale in 1 second
  • Forced vital capacity (FVC): the total amount of air you can exhale after taking a deep breath

Doctors calculate the results of a spirometry test as a percentage of the “normal” value for someone of your height, age, sex, and race. For example, if your FEV1 is 80%, this means that you can exhale 80% of the amount of air that a person of your height, age, sex, and race with healthy lungs could exhale in 1 second.

Normal values for both FEV1 and FVC are above 80% of the predicted value. Values lower than 80% may be a sign of lung disease.

Prevention is the best medicine. Working to keep your lungs healthy can be an effective way to avoid problems down the road. Here are some tips for keeping your lungs healthy:

  • If you smoke, consider quitting, and avoid secondhand smoke or environmental irritants.
  • Eat foods rich in antioxidants and high in fiber.
  • Get vaccinations such as the flu vaccine and the pneumonia vaccine. This can help prevent lung infections and promote lung health.
  • Exercise more frequently, which can help your lungs function properly.
  • Improve indoor air quality. Use tools such as indoor air filters and lower pollutants such as artificial fragrances, mold, and dust.

Below are some frequently asked questions about lung capacity.

How can I strengthen my lungs?

Diaphragmatic breathing and other types of breathing exercises can potentially help maintain or increase lung capacity in those without underlying lung conditions. Increasing physical activity can also help maintain lung function.

How long does it take to increase lung capacity?

It usually takes several weeks of regular breathing exercises or increased physical activity to see an improvement in symptoms. However, some people may see results sooner.

What are the symptoms of low lung capacity?

Symptoms of low lung capacity can include shortness of breath, difficulty breathing, and fatigue. If you’re experiencing these symptoms, it’s important to see a doctor to find out if an underlying condition could be the cause.

Does holding your breath increase lung capacity?

Holding your breath to increase lung capacity is not something you should do regularly, and not without medical supervision. That said, it may help with lung capacity. In fact, it’s part of the training for divers.

Learn more: How to train to hold your breath longer safely.

Several factors can decrease lung capacity, including age, obesity, certain health conditions, and a sedentary lifestyle. However, you can do many things to keep your lungs healthy.

Regular exercise, eating a healthy diet, and avoiding tobacco smoke can all help keep your lungs functioning at their best. If you’re experiencing symptoms of low lung capacity, such as shortness of breath, it’s important to see a doctor to find out if an underlying condition is causing them.

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