Breathing Exercises to Increase Lung Capacity

Medically reviewed by Deborah Weatherspoon, PhD, RN, CRNA on May 22, 2017Written by Ana Gotter


Your lung capacity is the total amount of air that your lungs can hold. Over time, our lung capacity and lung function typically decrease slowly as we age after our mid-20s. Some conditions like chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) can significantly speed up these reductions in lung capacity and functioning. This leads to difficulty in breathing and shortness of breath.

Fortunately, there are exercises that can help maintain and increase lung capacity, making it easier to keep your lungs healthy and get your body the oxygen it needs.

1. Diaphragmatic breathing

Diaphragmatic breathing, or “belly breathing,” engages the diaphragm, which is supposed to do most of the heavy lifting when it comes to breathing. This is particularly helpful in people with COPD, as the diaphragm isn’t as effective in these individuals and could be strengthened. It’s best used when feeling rested. If you have COPD, ask your doctor or respiratory therapist to show you how to use this exercise for best results.

According to the COPD Foundation, you should do the following to practice diaphragmatic breathing:

  • Relax your shoulders and sit back or lie down.
  • Place one hand on your belly and one on your chest.
  • Inhale through your nose for two seconds, feeling the air move into your abdomen and feeling your stomach move out. Your stomach should move more than your chest does.
  • Breathe out for two seconds through pursed lips while pressing on your abdomen.
  • Repeat.

Read more: 5 breathing exercises for COPD »

2. Pursed-lips breathing

Pursed-lips breathing can slow down your breathing, reducing the work of breathing by keeping your airways open longer. This makes it easier for the lungs to function and improves the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide. This breathing exercise is often easier for beginners than diaphragmatic breathing, and you can do it at home even if no one has showed you how. It can be practiced at any time.

To practice the pursed-lips breathing technique:

  • Inhale slowly through your nostrils.
  • Purse your lips, as if pouting or about to blow on something.
  • Breathe out as slowly as possible through pursed lips. This should take at least twice as long as it did to breathe in.
  • Repeat.

Read more: 9 home treatments for shortness of breath »

3. Rib stretch

This exercise is easy to use, and it can be done by anyone. It works by holding as much air in the lungs for as long as is safely possible. This can help improve your lung function and capacity when used at least once a day.

To use the rib stretch exercise to increase lung capacity:

  • Stand upright with your back arched.
  • Exhale all the oxygen from your lungs.
  • Breathe in slowly, filling your lungs as much as possible.
  • Hold your breath for at least 10 seconds.
  • Slowly exhale.

4. Numbered breathing

This breathing exercise can benefit anyone looking to increase their lung capacity. Numbered breathing requires that you breathe in and out to an increasing pattern of counts.

To perform this exercise:

  • Stand still and take a deep breath with your eyes closed.
  • Force all the air out of your lungs when you exhale.
  • As you inhale again, picture the number 1.
  • Hold your breath for several seconds, and then exhale.
  • Inhale as you picture the number 2, and exhale after holding your breath until the count of 3.
  • Continue this exercise until you get to the number 8.

Tips for keeping your lungs healthy

Prevention is the best medicine, and working to keep your lungs healthy is much more efficient than trying to repair them after something goes wrong. To keep your lungs healthy, do the following:

  • Stop smoking, and avoid secondhand smoke or environmental irritants.
  • Eat foods rich in antioxidants.
  • Get vaccinations like the flu vaccine and the pneumonia vaccine. This can help prevent lung infections and promote lung health.
  • Exercise more frequently, which can help your lungs function properly.
  • Improve indoor air quality. Use tools like indoor air filters and reduce pollutants like artificial fragrances, mold, and dust.
CMS Id: 121860