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a man leans over as though trying to catch his breath after a long run

Q: Are there breathing or strength-building exercises I can do to build my lung capacity?

A: “The short answer is no,” says Susan Hopkins, MD, PhD, professor of medicine and radiology at the University of California, San Diego. The lung is one organ you cannot really train, and there is little we can do to change it. “When it comes to lung capacity and ability to exchange oxygen, you have pretty much everything you are going to have by the time you reach the age of 12.”

That said, you can take steps to tone the muscles that help you inhale and exhale.

“If your breathing muscles get fatigued, breathing breaks down, and then you become even more fatigued,” explains sports physiologist Mike Bracko, EdD. That can lead to poor posture, which perpetuates the cycle. Picture the slouch of a marathon runner on mile 24: She’s tired and her shoulders are slouched forward. In this posture, her chest muscles are contracted and she’s not engaging her core muscles, which are vital for efficient respiration. Her posture limits her ability to get air in her lungs, and less air further increases her fatigue.

So how do you boost the fitness of your lung-supporting muscles? It’s the same way you do it for your body. According to Bracko, any kind of training — whether it’s steady-state cardio or anaerobic intervals — helps tone those hidden-but-vital muscles.

You also can strengthen your respiratory muscles by blowing out and breathing in against resistance, adds Hopkins. Specially designed breathing masks that provide resistance to air intake and expulsion are available. Blowing up a balloon or trying to breathe in through a narrow tube like a straw will provide the same benefit for a fraction of the cost. — Wendy Watkins 

Nicole Radziszewski

Nicole Radziszewski is a writer and personal trainer in River Forest, Ill. She blogs at

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