Vital Capacity

Vital capacity refers to the maximum amount of air the person is capable of expelling from their lungs after maximum inhalation. This is equal to the sum of inspiratory reserve volume, expiratory reserve volume and tidal volume. You can measure a person’s vital capacity using a regular or wet spirometer. Combining this with other physiological measurements you can measure the vital capacity to help determine if a patient is suffering from an underlying lung disease. Note that exercises can help to increase vital capacity while smoking decreases it.

Normal Vital Capacity

Normal adults have a vital capacity between 3-5L. The vital capacity an individual exhibits will vary based on their height, weight, sex, age and ethnicity. A low vital capacity is associated with a disability, obesity or chronic respiratory disease.

Can Exercise Increase Vital Capacity?

Exercising will increase vital capacity because the muscles require additional nutrients when they perform tough exercise, which requires the lungs to take in more oxygen. The lungs will need to expand further to take in this extra oxygen which will increase vital capacity. Consistent exercises can also improve the overall health of your lungs.

Effects of Smoking on Vital Capacity

Vital capacity is used by doctors do determine how much air the lungs are capable of holding. This is measured by having a person exhale, then inhale as much as they can and measuring how much air was inhaled. Smoking is found to decrease this level, even for those that have not been smoking for very long. A study showed that vital capacity decreased most when individuals started smoking during their adolescent years, affecting adolescent girls somewhat more than boys.

How to Increase Vital Capacity

A variety of sports require the participants to take in a large amount of air to be successful. There are methods that can be used to increase the amount of air the lungs take in and the efficiency of capturing oxygen. Practicing these exercises daily can increase lung capacity over time.

1. Counted Breathing

Hold your breath and slowly relax the muscles in the face and abdomen, then count to 100 in your heat and let your breath out when you cannot hold it any longer. Each time you perform this technique try to hit a higher number, using your previous progress as a benchmark. Take 3-4 breaths, exhaling slowly and then repeat the exercise. Then repeat the exercise 3-4 more times. Performing this technique regularly can help to increase long term vital capacity.

Watch a video for more instructions:

2. Breathing Techniques

Breathing deeply can help the lungs absorb more air over time. To perform this technique, inhale deeply, allowing the lungs to fill around 85 percent. Do not puff out the cheeks, but keep the face loose and relax to force the diaphragm and stomach muscles to work. Exhale slowly until the lungs are emptied. It may take some practice to complete this technique successfully. Allow the diaphragm to descend, relaxing the abdominal muscles so the lungs are expanded. Widen the arms and hold them away from the body to open the chest and take in a deep breath. The following video outlines how to perform this technique successfully:

Note: Performing breathing exercises during everyday activities is also helpful. Breathe in for 2 to 20 seconds and then exhale for 10 to 20 seconds, slowly increasing this rate. Over time you will find that you can increase your exhale rate to 45 seconds to two minutes. This exercise can be practiced at the office, while watching television, doing paperwork, at school or any other time during the day.

3. Physical Workout

  • Underwater Workout

Exercising in water will add additional resistance to your regimen that will increase the amount of oxygen supplied through the blood. Stretching and lifting in the water are helpful, though it may take some time for this to feel comfortable as weights will feel lighter in the water. Submerging yourself up to your neck in water while exercising can compress the chest cavity so you will take shorter, quicker breaths, and you can increase your lung function during this time.

The following video provides additional information:

  • Cardiovascular Exercises

Participating in 30 minutes of cardiovascular activity is enough to improve lung function and thus your vital capacity. Aerobics, cycling, running or swimming are all considered ideal activities to pump more oxygen into the system and improve circulation throughout the body. Mixing high intensity sprints with moderate activity during your workout can help the lungs work more efficiently to keep up with the demand.

  • High Elevation Workout

Working out at higher elevations means there will be less oxygen available, forcing the lungs to work more efficiently to get the amount of oxygen your body needs to function. High altitude training at around 8000 feet (2,500 m) above sea level will force the lungs to work much harder, a condition that your body will be able to maintain as you move back down to lower elevated areas. This will increase your lung capacity over time. Just be careful not to over-exert yourself as this can cause altitude sickness.

4. Playing a Wind Instrument

Wind instruments provide a regular workout for the lungs that can be enjoyable. The saxophone, trumpet, oboe, trombone, tuba, flute, clarinet and others will help individuals learn how to control their breathing and expand the alveoli to take in the air necessary to make the instrument function. Joining a marching band or Bugle Corps will provide adequate practice and good exercise while helping to improve lung function. Learning to sing can also work the diaphragm to improve lung function.

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