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Whether you’re dealing with a lung condition causing shortness of breath or hoping to improve your breathing during exercise, you may be wondering how to increase your lung capacity. Physical activity and breathing exercises may help to strengthen your muscles and boost your lung capacity.
What is lung capacity?
Your lung capacity is the maximum amount of air your lungs can hold. It refers to how deep of a breath you can take. It’s normal for lung capacity to hit a peak around the age of 25, then slowly decrease after 35 (Delgado, 2021).
Some health conditions and lifestyle factors may cause your lung capacity to decrease more quickly. When your lung capacity is low, you may notice trouble taking a deep breath and quickly feel out of breath.
Factors and conditions that may impact lung capacity include (Delgado, 2021):
- Cigarette smoking and vaping
- Weakened diaphragm muscles
- Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
- Lung cancer
While some of these factors and conditions may be out of your control, you can do exercises to help increase lung capacity. Let’s take a look at three exercises to try.
1. Diaphragmatic breathing
Diaphragmatic breathing, sometimes called belly breathing or abdominal breathing, is a type of deep breathing exercise that focuses on engaging the diaphragm.
Your diaphragm is the muscle located below your lungs at the bottom of your rib cage. When breathing, your diaphragm contracts, expanding your chest and lungs.
A 2016 study suggested diaphragmatic breathing exercises helped older adults who smoke cigarettes improve the strength of the muscles involved in breathing, and increased lung capacity (Jun, 2016).
In addition to helping your lung function, diaphragmatic breathing may help to reduce physical and mental stress levels (Hopper, 2019).
How to practice diaphragmatic breathing:
- Either lie down on your back or sit up straight in a chair.
- Relax your neck and shoulders.
- Rest your hand on your stomach.
- Breathe in slowly through your nose and focus on your stomach rising (this is a sign that you’re breathing from your diaphragm).
- Exhale, trying to make your breath out last 2–3 times longer than your inhale.
- Practice for about 5–10 minutes daily.
2. Pursed lip breathing
Pursed lip breathing is a technique that helps people control the flow of their breath. It helps keep your airways open to more effectively remove carbon dioxide from the body (Nguyen, 2021). This technique may help improve the function of your lungs and promote the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide.
It’s important to follow the pursed-lip breathing techniques—otherwise, the exercise will be less effective. The method is practiced by following these steps:
- Inhale slowly through your nose.
- Purse your lips (they should be almost touching, like when making a kissing face or blowing out candles).
- Breathe out through pursed lips as slowly as possible (this should take about 2–3 times longer than breathing in).
- Repeat for 3–5 breaths.
Box breathing: what is it, benefits, and how it works
3. Regular exercise
Staying physically active is important for the health of your lungs. Aerobic or cardio exercises help increase your heart rate and breathing, which is essential for keeping them healthy.
Increasing endurance while exercising helps reduce breathlessness and improve your lung health (Jun, 2016).
Here are some examples of cardio exercises:
If you feel out of breath easily, start slowly and build up strength. It doesn’t have to be an intense workout to exercise your lungs. If your goal is to run, start by walking or alternating between jogging and walking to build your endurance. In time, you may notice that your lung capacity has increased.
- Delgado, B. J. & Bajaj, T. (2021). Physiology, lung capacity. [Updated Jul 26, 2021]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Retrieved on Sept. 30, 2021 from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK541029/
- Jun, H. J., Kim, K. J., Nam, K. W., & Kim, C. H. (2016). Effects of breathing exercises on lung capacity and muscle activities of elderly smokers. Journal of Physical Therapy Science, 28(6), 1681–1685. doi: 10.1589/jpts.28.1681. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4932035/
- Hopper, S. I., Murray, S. L., Ferrara, L. R., & Singleton, J. K. (2019). Effectiveness of diaphragmatic breathing for reducing physiological and psychological stress in adults: a quantitative systematic review. JBI Database of Systematic Reviews and Implementation Reports, 17(9), 1855–1876. doi: 10.11124/JBISRIR-2017-003848. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/31436595/
- Nguyen, J. D. & Duong, H. (2021). Pursed-lip breathing. [Updated Jul 31, 2021]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Retrieved on Sept. 30, 2021 from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK545289/
Dr. Steve Silvestro is a board-certified pediatrician and Senior Manager, Medical Content & Education at Ro.