Your lungs naturally help you breathe

5 Breathing Exercises for Lung Capacity

By: Liz Lotts, RDN; NASM-CPT

Scientifically Reviewed By: Michael A. Smith, MD

Do you ever stop to wonder if you're breathing? Probably not. Breathing is controlled by the autonomic nervous system, which means you don't have to think about it at all. Your lungs naturally know how to inhale and exhale, but have you ever considered that maybe they could help you breathe better?

Breathing is how you get oxygen into your bloodstream. Since every part of your body relies on oxygen to function, how well you breathe directly impacts how well your body functions as a whole. If you want to maximize your breathing efficiency, you need to maximize your lung capacity and lung function. Let's talk about what it means to breathe easy and how to keep the wind in your sails for years to come.

How your body controls breathing

Breathing may be involuntary, but understanding the process makes you more in tune with your body. So here's how breathing works:

The autonomic nervous system sends signals from your brain to your lungs. More specifically, it controls the network that's responsible for carrying air into and out of your lungs. The autonomic nervous system is further broken down into the sympathetic system and parasympathetic system. The sympathetic system is sent into action in response to stress or danger; it's your flight-or-fight defense mechanism. When this system is turned on, your bronchial tubes widen and pulmonary blood vessels narrow. This leads to faster breathing but shallow breaths. The parasympathetic system has the opposite effect: bronchial tubes become more narrow, pulmonary blood vessels open up and your breathing rate slows down.

While all that is going on, there are muscles around your lungs contracting and relaxing to help control the flow of air in and out. Your breathing muscles include:

  • Diaphragm

    – A dome-shaped muscle that separates the chest cavity from the abdominal cavity. This is the primary muscle used in breathing.
  • Intercostal muscles

    – These are the muscles between your ribs that are highly active during physical activity.
  • Abdominal muscles

    – The abdominal muscles contract every time you exhale.
  • Face and mouth muscles

    – These muscles control your lips, tongue and soft palate when you breathe.
  • Pharynx

    – This sits right behind the mouth and lets air pass through the trachea to your lungs.
  • Muscles of the neck, collarbone and chest wall

    – These muscles move when you inhale.

What is lung capacity?

Lung capacity is the total volume of air your lungs can hold when you inhale with maximum effort. Most healthy adults have a total lung capacity (TLC) of about six liters. However, age, gender, body composition and ethnicity can affect lung capacity. For instance, people who are tall in stature tend to have greater lung capacity than those who are short. Generally speaking, though, lung capacity doesn't change throughout the lifecycle. What does change is lung function.

Lungs mature around 25 years of age, and their function stabilizes for about a decade. Around age 35, age begins to impact lung function. Chest wall muscles are not as strong as they used to be, which limits the lungs' ability to expand and contract properly.

How to Measure Lung Capacity

To measure lung health and function, clinicians will conduct a spirometry test. A spirometry test measures your lung's forced vital capacity and forced expiratory volume:

  • Forced vital capacity (FVC)

    is the amount of air that can be forcibly exhaled from your lungs after taking the deepest breath possible. Normal FVC varies depending on age, gender, height and race. An average adult has FVC values between 3-5 liters. (For comparison's sake, the average preschool-age child may see their FVC at 1.16 liters and 1.04 liters for boys and girls, respectively.)
  • Forced expiratory volume (FEV1)

    is defined as the maximum amount of air you can forcefully exhale in one second.

These values identify the degree/level of your airflow. The FEV1 results of your spirometry test are compared to a predicted standard for your age, gender, height and race. That number is then converted to a percentage of the predicted standard. For example, a normal FEV1 would be classified as anything greater than 80% of the predicted standard.

If you have any specific needs or questions about lung health, talk to a pulmonologist or your primary care physician.

How exercise helps your lungs

Generally speaking, regular exercise supports all aspects of health and longevity. According to a systematic review of meta-analyses, physically active older adults are better able to support their longevity and cardiovascular health. (Added bonus: it's a great way strengthen your glutes or to get a slimmer waist!) Those who break a sweat also experience healthy aging trajectories, better quality of life and even maintain optimal cognitive function.

And just like the rest of you, your lungs need exercise to stay in tip-top shape. Exercise helps your lungs by supporting muscle strength and cardiorespiratory fitness measures. The European Respiratory Society's journal Breathe explains that regular exercise strengthens muscles throughout your body and makes them more efficient at using oxygen. Stronger, fitter muscles require less oxygen, so you don't have to breathe as much air to perform at the same intensity. This relieves the workload and stress on your lungs.

Cardio exercise can also increase oxygen uptake. A randomized control trial showed that young females who engaged in moderate-intensity jogging for eight weeks increased their peak oxygen uptake and lung capacity. Interestingly, the joggers also improved overall cortisol and epinephrine levels by the end of the study period. These are the hormones released when the sympathetic nervous system is activated. These improvements in cortisol and epinephrine levels could indicate that exercise helped the women feel more relaxed, which allowed for slower, deeper and more oxygenated breaths.

The best part is you don't have to be a master athlete to benefit from physical activity. Any kind of movement counts! You can walk briskly around your neighborhood for an hour, ride your bike to the market or try a HIIT workout at home

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What happens to your lungs when you don't exercise?

Let's get this straight: you don't have to perform lung exercises in order for your lungs to keep working. Your lungs will, however, work more efficiently for a longer period of time if you engage in a regular aerobic exercise routine. This has been proven in several cross-sectional research studies. One such study analyzed the relationship between ventilatory function and age in master athletes. Researchers compared the spirometry tests of male and female master athletes ages 35 to 86 to sedentary adults of the same age group. They found FEV1 was 9% higher and predicted lung age was 15% lower in the master athletes.

A 2020 cross-sectional study went a step further to review how physical activity might impact lung volume and strength of respiratory muscles in older adults. As it turns out, there was a correlation between physical performance and respiratory health. Plus, the longer an older adult remains physically inactive, the harder it is support healthy FVC values.

5 breathing exercises to increase lung capacity

While any consistent form of activity helps support healthy lungs, there are targeted exercises for optimal pulmonary function. Like isolating your biceps in a biceps curl, breathing exercises hone in on your breathing muscles to help support lung efficiency and push out stale air.

Below are five breathing exercises anyone can do, anytime, anywhere. All you need is a comfortable place to sit or lie down. Warning: these may seem like easy exercises on paper, but they will challenge you in unexpected ways! Start with one of these deep breathing exercises, practice it daily for five to 10 minutes until it becomes easier, and then try another one and repeat.

  • Belly breathing

    – Also known as

    diaphragmatic breathing

    , this abdominal breathing technique helps strengthen your diaphragm, so it takes less effort to breathe all the fresh air. You can practice this lying flat on your back or sitting upright in a chair. Whichever way you choose, remain still. Place one hand on the upper part of your chest and the other on your abdomen. Inhale deeply through your nose, feeling your stomach press into your bottom hand. Now, engage your abdominal muscles and exhale slowly through your mouth. The exhale should take at least twice as long as the inhale. Head, neck and shoulders should be relaxed.
  • Pursed-lip breathing

    – This technique slows your breathing rate and allows your airway to stay open longer, thereby training your lungs to take in more air at one time. Practice this by sitting up tall with strong posture. Take a big breath in through your nose. Purse your lips like you're going to kiss someone, and then let the air out slowly. It should take twice as long to exhale as it did to inhale.
  • Rib stretch breathing

    – The purpose of this breathing exercise is to stretch and strengthen the muscles around your rib cage. Start by standing or sitting upright. Cross your arms over your chest so that your palms wrap around the sides of your ribs. Take a big breath in through your nose, inhaling until your lungs feel completely full and your ribs are expanding into your hands. Hold the breath for five to 10 seconds. Exhale slowly through your mouth.
  • Alternate nostril breathing

    – A 2020 study discovered that practicing alternate nostril breathing for 10 minutes per day for four weeks straight showed positive impacts on respiratory function. This is a common practice in yoga circles, known as nadi shodhana. To do this breathing exercise, place your right index and middle fingers between your eyebrows. Using your right thumb, close your right nostril and slowly inhale through your left nostril. Pause for a second to hold the breath. Using your right ring finger, close your left nostril and exhale trough the right nostril. Pause again and repeat.
  • Equal breathing

    – This is another common deep breathing technique practiced in yoga. In Sanskrit, this technique is called sama vritti. It's meant to be calming and slow your respiratory rate for total well-being. The concept is quite simple. Sit comfortably and close your eyes. Inhale slowly, while counting to four. Hold the breath for a second, and then exhale at the same rate, counting to four. You don't necessarily have to count to four. The goal is take just as long to exhale as you do to inhale.

Of course, none of these breathing exercises are effective if you don't do them. You have to give your lungs the same attention you give your legs. That includes supplements that support lung function. Before you take your next breath, remember that healthy lungs may not make you look good in a bathing suit, but they will give you a fitter bod—for the long haul!

About the Author: Liz Lotts is a registered dietitian nutritionist and certified personal trainer. She has a passion for helping people achieve their health goals through personalized nutrition and effective fitness programs. In her free time, Liz enjoys running, lifting weights, watching live sports with her husband and traveling to new places.

Credentials/Degrees: RDN; NASM-CPT; Certified Orangetheory Fitness Coach; TRX Qualified Coach; Bachelor’s in Advertising, Marketing & Communications; Master of Science in Dietetics.


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