Regular physical activity is the most crucial area of focus when it comes to increasing lung capacity. Specific types of exercise and techniques are especially effective at improving the body's ability to deliver oxygen to the working muscles.

It's important to recognize that lung function and lung capacity aren't quite the same things. A person's lungs finish developing around their mid 20s, and overall functioning starts to gradually decline about 10 years later. Lung function metrics include the ability of the lungs to oxygenate and release carbon dioxide.

Lung capacity is a measure of how much oxygen the body can use. Whilst lung function cannot be improved, it's possible to increase lung capacity and also improve the overall health of the lungs.

Lung Function Problems and Testing Options

In addition to the age-related decline in lung function, conditions such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) can accelerate the decrease in lung capacity and function. In the case of COPD, persistent airway obstructions caused by mucus build-up or inflamed bronchial tubes can significantly affect the health of the lungs. Other restrictive lung diseases can also adversely affect lung function and capacity.

Lung function testing can be used to diagnose conditions and lung damage, and identify the cause of breathing difficulties. Also known as pulmonary function testing, there are several tests that can be used to determine how well a person's lungs are working. These include spirometry and diffusion capacity.

VO2 max is the measurement of the maximum volume of oxygen a person can use during exercise. It provides insight into how well the muscles are able to utilize oxygen. A VO2 max test is considered the best way to measure the effectiveness of a person's oxygen delivery system and their overall cardiorespiratory fitness.

How Exercise Increases Lung Capacity

Although exercise doesn't increase the size of the lungs, it can improve their efficiency.

  • Regular exercise helps increase the volume of air that can be inhaled and exhaled. Subsequently, more oxygen can be delivered to working muscles, and carbon dioxide can be removed more effectively. Overall, your muscles will require less oxygen, and they will produce less carbon dioxide
  • Exercise increases the number of capillaries. These are tiny blood vessels that deliver oxygen and nutrients around the body and therefore increase oxygen absorption
  • The strength and stamina of respiratory muscles increases with exercise
  • Overall circulation is increased, again allowing for more efficient oxygen delivery

Ways to Increase Lung Capacity and Improve General Lung Health

Regular exercise can increase lung capacity, and there are other steps you can take to increase your exercise tolerance as part of an overall plan to optimize lung health.

General ways to look after the health of your lungs include:

  • Quitting smoking. Smoking cessation programs are designed to help individuals stop smoking and stop using other tobacco products as well
  • Taking steps to improve air quality. These can include the use of air filters, adding plants to the workspace, and reducing environmental pollutants such as chemicals and dust. An air quality assessment is a method for evaluating indoor air quality
  • Consuming a diet rich in antioxidants to help protect and support the body

The following exercise protocols can be used to help increase lung capacity.

1. Breathing exercises

Breathing exercises offer one of the simplest approaches for increasing lung capacity and efficiency. Breathing is often taken for granted, and there are techniques that can be used to optimize breathing efficiency so that you can breathe more deeply and fully.

Breathing exercises can improve cardiopulmonary function. Like any type of exercise, regular, ongoing practice is likely required to maintain the full benefits and lasting improvement.

Diaphragmatic breathing can offer an effective method for breathing more efficiently. This is because it helps to engage the diaphragm more fully, which is an important breathing muscle. Also known as abdominal or belly breathing, diaphragmatic breathing offers the added bonus of helping to elicit a relaxation response in the body. Therefore, it can be useful as a stress management technique.

Find a comfortable, relaxed position to practice belly breathing. Place one hand on your chest, and the other on your stomach. Slowly breathe in and feel your belly fill with air. Notice the hand on your belly rising to the greatest extent, and the hand on your chest also moving slightly as the chest fills with air. Slowly release the breath, allowing a little more time for the out-breath. Allow the air to fully release and the stomach to move back in. Repeat five times.

2. Aerobic exercise

Regular aerobic exercise is an important part of an overall exercise plan to improve lung capacity and overall cardiovascular fitness. Aerobic exercise helps the lungs to function efficiently by increasing the body's ability to absorb and distribute oxygen to the working muscles. Examples of aerobic exercise include walking, jogging, swimming, cycling, and many team sports.

Aerobic exercise should be performed at a high enough intensity for the individual to increase their heart rate and breathing rate so that adaptations to the cardiorespiratory system, such as improved lung capacity, can occur.

As fitness improves, various methods can be used to increase the intensity of aerobic workouts to allow for continued improvements. These include anaerobic techniques such as interval training or adding resistance such as hills.

3. Posture-focused exercise

Adopting an upright and open posture can be a simple way to breathe more efficiently and effectively. Ergonomic concepts such as workstation set up are an important consideration for adopting a breathing-friendly posture.

Muscle strengthening exercises can help to build core strength, which in turn helps support an upright posture. Upper body exercises help to strengthen and tone muscle groups such as the chest, shoulders, and back. A balanced strength training program can help create more space in the chest cavity and make deep breathing easier.

Exercises such as the seated row are especially effective options for office workers as they help draw the shoulders back and offer a counter position to the common forward-slumping desk posture.

Exercise modalities such as Pilates and yoga include a strong focus on exercises that improve core strength and overall posture. Movements are also breath-centered, the combination of which makes them an excellent addition to an exercise program for improving lung capacity.