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How Long Can a Person Hold Their Breath?

Why can some people hold their breath for minutes but others only seconds? What sets that limit? Everyday Einstein explores the mechanics (and psychology) behind world record breath holders.

By
Sabrina Stierwalt, PhD,
Episode #321
Man holding his breath.

As a parent, I often find myself asking questions I never thought I would ask … How long can someone survive on raisins alone? How did that yogurt get on the ceiling?

And so one night, after carefully placing my sleeping baby down in his crib, I stood there holding my breath, noting that I would obviously choose passing out over possibly making the slightest sound that could wake him. I wondered, how long can a person’s body go without oxygen? What sets that limit and why is it that some people can hold their breath for minutes but others only seconds?

The Guinness World Record for the longest time spent holding one’s breath was set in 2016 by Aleix Segura Vendrell in a pool in Spain. The professional freediver went without breath for a whopping 24 minutes and 3 seconds. Before Vendrell, a record was set just two years earlier in 2014 by Danish freediver Stig Severinsen at 22 minutes. Those numbers are more than 40 times longer than the 30 seconds or so that the average person goes before coming up for air. Compare that to the fastest mile-run on record at an impressive 3 minutes and 43 seconds which is only 3-4 times shorter than the more average pace of a 12-minute mile.

Hyperventilating Allows You to Hold Your Breath Longer

When you hold your breath, it’s not actually the lack of oxygen that does you in, but the excess of carbon dioxide that is not getting exhaled. When CO2 builds up in your body, your blood will acidify as your enzymes convert water and the excess CO2 into carbonic acid. This acidification can lead to drowsiness and headaches and ultimately have a detrimental effect on the body’s major organs.

So one way record-breaking breath holders manage such long stints under water is to breathe pure oxygen (basically hyperventilate) before their diving attempt. This rids their lungs of as much CO2 as possible. And if you take a deep breath right now and try to hold it, you may notice that exhaling a bit helps you hold it longer. Throughout Vendrell’s 24 minutes, the oxygen in his lungs got picked up by his bloodstream to be distributed to his vital organs. Without oxygen and without CO2, his lungs were empty so he was able to stay under and only inhaled deeply after rising above the surface.

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