Measured in cubic centimeters or cubic inches, vital capacity measures the capacity of the lungs. It is the maximum amount of air the body can hold when the lungs are full and they have inhaled the maximum amount the body will let them.
Vital capacity is measured with a wet or regular spirometer, and with other testing factors such as actual physical measurements, calculations can be made to work it out. Research has proven that there are links between the surface area of the body and lung capacity so in order to work out vital capacity, you also need to know both your height and weight.
What is vital capacity used for?
Primarily, vital capacity is used to diagnose lung disorders and other medical problems related to the respiratory system. In lung disease, particularly restrictive lung disease, the amount of air the lungs can hold can be dramatically increased, this causing vital capacity to go down. This differs from constructive lung disease where the condition causes vital capacity to drop by only the smallest amount.
Vital capacity can also be used to measure the development of neuromuscular disease.
What is normal vital capacity?
A normal, healthy, fully-functioning adult is expected to have a vital capacity of between three and five liters. This will vary from person to person because of the link with body surface area, and weight, lifestyle habits, and health-state will have an impact on the end figure.
Vital capacity that is low (beneath three liters) is generally a symptom or sign of a respiratory problem or disease, obesity and also disability.
Smoking and vital capacity
You can’t talk about low vital capacity without having a mention for the effects that smoking has on it. Smoking causes many problems within the human body but one of the massive side effects it can have is on the lungs. It can dramatically reduce the vital capacity therefore making it harder for the body to move around and function as well as it normally would.
Even smoking for a short period of time can have a dramatic effect on the way your lungs work, and when you consider that there are a number of respiratory problems that come hand in hand with smoking, there is a very high chance that smoking WILL decrease your vital capacity.
In order to raise your vital capacity if you are a smoker, you would need to give up smoking.
Are there other ways of increasing vital capacity?
Giving up smoking is the number one way to increase vital capacity but if you are not a smoker, there are other ways you can improve the functions of your lungs.
When you exercise, your body is put under more pressure so it needs more of everything to function at high capacity. Your body works harder so the heart pumps faster to move blood around the body. Therefore more oxygen is needed, not only to allow this to happen, but also to move nutrients to the muscles and other areas which need it the most.
The lungs expand to help allow for all the extra oxygen the body needs and by doing this regularly, over time you will notice that your lung capacity or vital capacity will improve quite dramatically. The more healthy you are and the more you exercise, the higher your lung capacity is likely to be if you are otherwise fit and healthy.
Short bursts of cardiovascular training is good to improve vital capacity, and by doing twenty-minute bursts of high-intensity activity (such as running or even walking fast if you lead a sedentary lifestyle) is enough to get the blood pumping fast enough to see your lungs getting to work.
For more advanced techniques, you should try exercises under your water to offer more resistance and also to train your lungs and other respiratory organs to deal with holding your breath and breathing properly when you’re underwater. It can help to increase the space in your chest cavity, therefore giving your lungs more room to expand.
High elevation exercise is another great way to increase vital capacity because there is a lack of oxygen readily available. High altitude training is training that occurs around 2,500 meters above sea level and will force your lungs and the rest of the body to work at a much harder pace in order to support the body.
Altitude sickness is a common side effect of altitude training so it is important to remember not to over-exert yourself.
Counted breathing and meditation can help to improve vital capacity because you are training your lungs to hold the air for longer. You also breathe in over a longer period of time than you usually would, concentrating on slowing your breathing right down to allow for a state of calm.
Counting to four and breathing in for one, two and out for three, four is a great way to start if you have never tried breathing exercises before. The aim is to slow the speed of your inhale, allow your lungs to take more for longer, and over time this will allow for a better lung capacity in general.
Playing wind musical instruments needs you to have a bigger lung capacity to allow you to blow more music through the instrument itself. Playing something like the oboe, trumpet, flute or clarinet (amongst many others) will encourage your lungs to take in more air over time, and the more you play, the better your lung capacity will be.