Because breathing is essential to life and your lungs are essential to breathing, I would like to share a number of tips to help you improve your lung capacity, which is a measure of how much air your body can use. As you may expect, your lung capacity can be improved through activities like diaphragmatic breathing, exercise and maintaining good posture.
Some people with diminished lung capacity have found singing, laughing and participating in a breathing club to be beneficial activities that can ease breathing problems. Quitting smoking and optimizing your vitamin D level are other measures shown to promote increased lung capacity.
Lung Function Versus Lung Capacity: What’s the Difference?
It’s important to note lung function and lung capacity are different measurements. The Lung Institute defines these terms as follows:1
- Lung function — A metric determined by the amount of air your lungs can hold and how quickly you can take in and release air from your lungs, as well as your body’s ability to oxygenate and remove carbon dioxide (CO2) from your blood
- Lung capacity — The maximum amount of oxygen your body can use
For simplicity, they state, “Lung function is how your body uses air while lung capacity is how much air your body can use.”2 Notably, your lung function cannot be improved — once it’s gone, it’s gone. Your lung capacity; however, can be controlled and improved.
The American Lung Association (ALA)3 says your total lung capacity is about 6 liters and your lung function typically begins to decline after age 35, making breathing somewhat more difficult as you age. In terms of the impact aging has on your lungs, the ALA highlights a few of the body changes that may contribute to a decrease in lung capacity, including:4,5
- Your diaphragm muscles can become weaker
- Lung tissue designed to help keep your airways open may lose its elasticity, causing your airways to become smaller
- Rib cage bones may change,6 leaving less room for your lungs to expand properly
- Air sacs lose their shape and become baggy
Seven Tips to Increase Your Lung Capacity
While breathing is often an unconscious activity, there are particular actions you can take to optimize your breathing, which in turn will have an immediate and beneficial impact on your lungs. As shown below, experts at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago provide seven tips to help you maintain healthy lungs and also boost your lung capacity.7
Keith Roberts, assistant professor and director of respiratory care clinical services at Rush University, suggests these techniques will benefit healthy people as well as anyone dealing with lung-related illnesses such as asthma, chronic bronchitis or emphysema.8
1. Breathe using your diaphragm — Diaphragmatic breathing is so named because it creates awareness of your diaphragm, the large muscle separating your abdominal cavity from your thoracic cavity that plays an important role in breathing. "By concentrating on lowering the diaphragm as you breathe in, you'll get a much deeper inhale," asserts Roberts. "This is the technique professional singers use to increase their lung capacity."9
The COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) Foundation shares details on how to perform this technique, noting it is best used when you’re feeling relaxed and rested and when you are lying down or sitting back. For best results if you have COPD, ask your doctor or respiratory therapist to show you how to perform this type of breathing. To do diaphragmatic breathing:10
As presented above in his TED Talk video called “Shut Your Mouth and Change Your Life,” Patrick McKeown, one of the top teachers of the Buteyko Breathing Method — a technique named after the Russian physician who developed it — shares helpful advice about how to breathe properly.
He says your goal should be to slowly decrease the volume of each breath, to the point it feels like you're almost not breathing at all. (You'll notice your breath getting very quiet at this point). He suggests you focus on the cold air coming in through your nose and the slightly warmer air leaving it as you exhale, while trying to develop a slight “air hunger.” This will result in a slight accumulation of CO2 in your blood so that it signals your brain to breathe.
After three or four minutes of air hunger, notes McKeown, you'll start experiencing the beneficial effects of CO2 accumulation, such as an increase in body temperature and an increase in saliva. The body temperature increase is a sign of improved blood circulation, whereas the increase in saliva indicates the activation of your parasympathetic nervous system, which is important for stress reduction.
When you're breathing properly, your breath will be soft, quiet and light, McKeown suggests. It should not be audibly or visibly noticeable. By slowing down the speed of your breathing to the point where the hairs in your nose barely move, he believes you can more easily enter into a calm, meditative state. Seek to breathe less air into your lungs than what you were breathing before you initiated the exercise.
Keep in mind the air shortage should be tolerable and not stressful, says McKeown. If the air shortage is too much, take a break from the exercise for 15 seconds or so and then start up again. This type of breathing not only helps your lungs, but it will also help lower your blood pressure, making it a useful, nondrug technique to address hypertension.
Beyond that, you may notice you have less nasal congestion after applying this technique, which allows for easier breathing. For more breathing advice, review my article “Why Nose Breathing Is so Important for Optimal Health and Fitness.”
2. Count your breaths — With respect to this technique, you count how long a natural breath takes and then seek to increase the length of both your inhalations and exhalations. Avoid straining and allow the extension of your breaths to become a gradual, comfortable process.
3. Get regular exercise — At least 60 minutes of moderately intense movement daily, such as a brisk walk, jog or bike ride, is beneficial for your lungs. "Regular moderately intense activity is great for the lungs, and when you increase your daily activity you get three things done at once: healthy lungs, a healthier heart and a better mood," states physical therapist Jennifer Ryan, program coordinator in critical care at University of Chicago Medicine.11
Overall, exercise is beneficial because it makes your muscles more efficient, boosts your lung capacity, improves your circulation and strengthens your heart. Some of my favorite exercises include core training, high-intensity interval training, stretching, walking, weight training and yoga.
Ryan suggests your lungs will benefit from intense activity, which also helps “counteract the buildup of toxins and tar in the lungs caused by environmental pollutants, allergens, dust and cigarette smoke.”12
4. Join a breathing club — If you have lung or breathing problems and are unable to exercise, Ryan recommends you join a support group known as a “breathing club.” The objective of these groups is to support you as you work on effective breathing techniques, as well as receive support and information to help improve your quality of life.
According to Ryan, the ALA offers Better Breathers Clubs throughout Illinois and around the country. To find one near you, visit the ALA website13 or call (800) LUNG-USA (586-4872).
5. Laugh and sing more — "Laughing is a great exercise to work the abdominal muscles and increase lung capacity," says Ryan. "It also clears out your lungs by forcing enough stale air out that it allows fresh air to enter into more areas of the lung."14 In addition to laughing, singing may also help boost your lung capacity.
A small 2015 study involving Indonesian students and spirometry tests indicated the lung vital capacity of choir singers (3.12 L) was greater than nonsingers (2.73 L).15
As presented in the video above, the British Lung Foundation (BLF) promotes singing for lung health.16 About the beneficial impact of the BLF’s singing groups, Linda, a COPD clinical nurse specialist featured in the video, said:
“When [the singing group participants] first started, it was hard to get any notes out of them … now, they are actually singing whole songs. It’s quite amazing how much they’ve benefited from [singing].
It’s given them a much better quality of life, they’ve improved their lung capacity … some of them don’t seem to get exacerbations of their COPD anymore, and they are using their inhalers less.”
6. Maintain good posture — Given their location and the fact your lungs are soft structures, poor posture can influence your lung capacity. About the importance of maintaining good posture and taking occasional stretch breaks, Ryan states:17
"You want to occasionally sit tall and reach overhead, to make more room for your lungs. A simple technique for giving your lungs even more room is leaning back slightly in a stable chair, lifting the chest and opening the front of your body as you breathe deeply.”
Based on a 2006 study18 evaluating the impact of different sitting postures on lung capacity, expiratory flow and lumbar lordosis, the study authors concluded slumped sitting significantly decreased all three measures.
If your breathing is negatively impacted by long hours of sitting, especially if you have a desk job, you might consider investing in a standing desk, which I use personally and highly recommend.
7. Stay hydrated — Just as proper fluid intake is vital to the health of your other organs, drinking sufficient water on a daily basis is important to maintain healthy lungs. "Staying well hydrated by taking in fluids throughout the day helps keep the mucosal linings in the lungs thin," Ryan comments. "This thinner lining helps the lungs function better."19