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How to Increase Lung Capacity with Breathing Exercises

COPD Basics

July 27, 2023

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Illustration by Brittany England

Illustration by Brittany England

by Stephanie Orford

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Medically Reviewed by:

Nick Villalobos, MD

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•••••

by Stephanie Orford

•••••

Medically Reviewed by:

Nick Villalobos, MD

•••••

•••••

You may be able to increase your lung capacity if you live with COPD. People often see results in less than a month of daily breathing exercises.

If you have chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), you may be looking for ways to reverse your condition and make it easier to breathe.

Healthcare professionals who specialize in COPD often recommend patients undergo pulmonary rehabilitation therapy, no matter their disease stage. Breathing techniques are an important part of pulmonary rehabilitation, along with education, exercise training, and nutrition counseling.

Here’s what to know about exercises you can do at home to help you breathe better.

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Can breathing exercises increase lung capacity?

Yes, doing breathing exercises may significantly increase your lung capacity.

A 2021 study found that doing just 10 deep inhalations per hour can greatly improve lung function and decrease complications associated with respiratory issues.

The study asked patients from a physical medicine and rehabilitation clinic to perform breathing exercises for 30 days, using an incentive spirometer to track their breathing at home.

Their maximal inspiratory volume increased by an average of 16% over the study period. The participants were also asked to do light exercises like walking for 20 minutes a day, 3 days a week.

However, less is known about how breathing exercises can affect people living with COPD, and more research is needed.

Breathing exercises may have mixed effects on some symptoms of COPD.

A 2019 meta-analysis found that breathing exercises for COPD, including pursed-lip breathing and diaphragmatic breathing, may help improve air circulation in the lungs and boost quality of life for people with the condition.

The same analysis found that the breathing exercises studied didn’t help with shortness of breath, one of the most common symptoms of COPD. However, it’s important to note that these studies did not evaluate the long-term practice or effects of breathing exercises.

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Breathing exercises to try

Here are six breathing exercises that may help if you live with COPD.

According to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, these exercises may help you control your breathing better and feel out of breath less often. They can also help clear mucus from your lungs.

Diaphragmatic breathing

Also called “belly breathing,” diaphragmatic breathing is great for strengthening your diaphragm, which can help you breathe better on a daily basis.

Your diaphragm is a large, flat muscle that spans horizontally across your chest underneath your lungs at the base of your ribcage. It separates your thoracic (chest) cavity from your abdominal (belly) cavity.

When the diaphragm contracts, it moves down into your abdominal cavity, making your chest cavity longer and opening up your lungs, causing you to breathe in.

Instructions for diaphragmatic breathing:

  1. Sit up with your back straight. Or lie on your back with your head supported. Bend your knees and place your feet on the floor.
  2. Lay one hand on your upper belly and the other on the middle of your chest.
  3. Take a slow, deep breath in through your nose. As you do this, try to push your belly out so that it gets bigger as you breathe in.
  4. Purse your lips and blow out slowly through your mouth.
  5. Continue breathing slowly in through your nose and out through your mouth for 5–10 minutes, concentrating on pushing your belly out as you breathe in.

Deep breathing

Deep breathing is another exercise that can help you breathe in more air and get trapped air out of your lungs.

To practice deep breathing:

  1. Sit or stand in a posture that’s comfortable to you with your elbows slightly behind you.
  2. Breathe in and hold the breath in your lungs as long as possible.
  3. Exhale and allow yourself to cough.
  4. Repeat up to 10 times each hour.

Consider trying an incentive spirometer

An incentive spirometer is an inexpensive device you can use at home to measure the volume of your breaths.

Some healthcare professionals recommend them to help train patients to breathe more deeply.

You can use it to motivate yourself to breathe in deeply and increase the amount you can comfortably breathe in over time. It helps stretch and exercise the lungs.

You can use an incentive spirometer as you’re doing deep breathing exercises.

Pursed-lips breathing

Pursed-lip breathing may be helpful when you feel nervous or out of breath. It may help you calm yourself down and slow down your breathing.

  1. Breathe in for 2 seconds using your ab muscles.
  2. Purse your lips as though you’re about to give someone a kiss on the cheek, then breathe out for 4 seconds. The air should make a sound as you breathe out.
  3. Repeat a few times as needed.

Controlled coughing

You can use this technique to get rid of excess mucus. Controlled coughing be helpful after you take a bronchodilator medication to open your airways or any time you feel mucus buildup in your lungs.

  1. Sit in a chair and lean slightly forward, placing both feet flat on the floor. Hold your hands together over your belly.
  2. Take a deep, slow breath in through your nose.
  3. As you breathe out, lean farther forward and press your arms into your belly.
  4. With an open mouth, cough two to three short, sharp coughs.
  5. Breathe in again slowly through your nose.
  6. Rest.

What is normal lung capacity?

“Normal” lung capacity is hard to define because you can measure and calculate it in a few different ways. It depends on several factors, including:

  • Age: Lungs grow to their full size by the time you’re in early adulthood. Lung capacity starts decreasing slowly when you’re about 35 years old.
  • Height: Taller people tend to have greater lung capacity.
  • Sex: Males tend to have greater lung capacity than females when all other factors are equal, such as height.
  • Race: People with Caucasian, Latino, and North Asian (e.g., Chinese, Korean, Japanese) ancestry tend to have larger lungs than people with African and Southeast Asian ancestry.
  • Altitude: If you travel to or live in a region about 1,800 meters above sea level or higher, your lung capacity and other aspects of your body will adapt to the lower availability of oxygen in the air you breathe.
  • Lifestyle factors: Physical activity level and smoking are two important factors that can affect lung capacity.

Here are some values for lung capacity by age from an older 1999 study in Brazil. The researchers measured the total lung capacity in a group of 100 healthy people with different genetic ancestries, ages, and genders.

Total lung capacity is the volume of air you can take into your lungs when you breathe in as much as you possibly can.

Total lung capacity in males (liters)Total lung capacity in females (liters)
20–29 years old6.834.90
30–39 years old7.125.25
40–49 years old7.075.19
50–59 years old5.844.95
60–69 years old6.145.01
70–80 years old6.464.63

Other lung capacity reference values are available but not often based on a group of participants with diverse genetic backgrounds. For example, the current Global Lung Function Initiative reference values are based on lung capacity in people of European ancestry, so they may not accurately represent people with other genetic backgrounds.

The best way to get a sense of your lung capacity is to ask your doctor.

Higher lung capacity isn’t necessarily better in COPD

It’s important to note that a higher total lung capacity doesn’t necessarily mean healthier or better breathing.

When it comes to respiratory conditions like COPD, other factors make lung volume results harder to interpret.

  • Air trapping can happen when the lungs collapse as you breathe in. Air trapping can increase residual volume (RV) and result in little or no change in total lung capacity. RV is the amount of air left in the lungs after you breathe out as hard as you can.
  • Hyperinflation can lead to a higher total lung capacity.
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What are the symptoms of low lung capacity?

Symptoms of reduced lung volume include:

  • shortness of breath
  • coughing
  • wheezing
  • chest pain

How long does it take to increase lung capacity?

People often experience improvements after they start doing exercises to increase lung capacity. The benefits continue to increase the longer you do the exercises.

In the 2021 study mentioned above, participants practiced deep breathing exercises with an incentive spirometer three times per day for 30 days, along with low impact exercise 3 times a week.

According to the results, participants could breathe in more air each week.

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Tips for keeping your lungs healthy

There are other things you can do to take care of your lungs. The American Lung Association and National Institutes of Health recommend:

  • avoiding smoking, including secondhand smoke
  • avoiding exposure to air pollution — for example, don’t exercise outdoors near traffic or on smoggy days
  • exercising
  • testing for radon in your home
  • taking precautions at work if you’re often exposed to dust, fumes, or other irritants
  • getting doctor check-ups regularly

Takeaway

Breathing exercises are an important part of pulmonary rehabilitation for people living with COPD. The exercises can help increase your lung capacity and help you breathe more easily.

They’re also completely free, and you can do them in the comfort of your own home.

Medically reviewed on July 27, 2023

21 Sources


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