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.

Sabrina Stierwalt, PhD
4-minute read
Episode #321
Man holding his breath.

Does Lung Capacity Set a Limit on Breath Holding?

This suggests that lung volume or capacity may set a mechanical limit on breath holding. So those with longer torsos may be at an advantage. Men also have higher lung capacities than women by 10-12% likely due to larger on average rib cages.

Lifestyle choices like not smoking and endurance training can increase your lung capacity but usually only by incremental amounts. Instead freedivers employ a technique called lung packing that can double or even triple your lung capacity. When lung packing, you fill your lungs with air but then continue to take smaller breaths, effectively forcing them down into your already full lungs and training your lungs to hold more air.

However, it’s not all mechanics. Your metabolic rate does factor into how long you can hold your breath. That’s why record-setting breaths are taken while floating in a pool and not while someone is actively swimming or diving.

The Limit May Be Psychological

However, even given extensive training and massive lung capacities, researchers still don’t see a clear explanation for how someone can manage going over 20 minutes without air and suggest that it can’t be all physiology. There must be some form of mind-over-matter involved.

All mammals have what is called a dive reflex which causes our hearts to slow down when we submerge our bodies or even just our faces in cold water. This reflex is why these long stints of breath holding happen in pools. Our blood gets redirected from our neglectable extremities to focus instead on our more important organs like the brain, heart, and lungs. This reflex has saved the lives of more than a few people who have fallen into icy water for several minutes before being rescued.

So what does a reflex have to do with psychology? Many freedivers describe entering a calm and meditative state as a key tool for holding their breath for extended periods. They are able to extend the same benefits of this dive reflex through training and practice.

Another huge psychological factor is overcoming the urge to breathe. It sounds simple, but our instinct, luckily, is survival. So the urge to breathethat chemical signal our body sends to the brain screaming “I need air!”may be more important in sending us back to the surface gasping for air than the actual need to breathe. Freedivers like Vendrell describe fighting that urge as a key tool for keeping themselves under water.

So scientists don’t yet understand what exactly sets the human body’s limit on holding its breath, but it is likely a complex combination of mechanical, metabolic, and psychological factors. Advances in pushing the known limit appear to progress similarly to other feats of athletic prowess, that is, not linearly. In other words, each new record no longer doubles or triples the previous one, but instead advances appear to be leveling off and becoming more incremental with each new record-setting breath.

And if you’ve held your breath throughout this entire podcast, congratulations. You only have to extend that by about four more times to be the next record-holder.

Until next time, this is Sabrina Stierwalt with Everyday Einstein’s Quick and Dirty Tips for helping you make sense of science. You can become a fan of Everyday Einstein on Facebook or follow me on Twitter, where I’m @QDTeinstein. If you have a question that you’d like to see on a future episode, send me an email at everydayeinstein@quickanddirtytips.com.

Man holding his breath image courtesy of Shutterstock.


About the Author

Sabrina Stierwalt, PhD

Dr Sabrina Stierwalt earned a Ph.D. in Astronomy & Astrophysics from Cornell University and is now a Professor of Physics at Occidental College.