What are the Benefits of Holding your Breath?

woman holding her breath

What are the Benefits of Holding your Breath?

Dr. Anthony Warren
| 2020-05-29 | 2 min read

How long you are able to hold your breath without feeling dizzy or overly uncomfortable is a good indicator of overall health. Longer times are a sign of better health, overall fitness and a relaxed state. On the other hand, shorter times usually point to bad breathing habits such as poor use of the diaphragm, unstable or disturbed breathing and a high level of stress and anxiety.

Everyone’s holding times are different of course. For a healthy adult, breath holding times measured after emptying the lungs typically lie between 45 and 60 seconds. For athletes they can be double these values.

Sufferers from sleep apnea tend to have lowered breath holding times. Recent research suggests that this is a result of unstable breathing control and inability to hold the breath for less than 30- 40 seconds say may be the first signs of sleep apnea.

Smokers usually have highly compromised breathing patterns and control: their breath holding times often drop below 15 seconds. Interestingly, research at King’s College in London, found that unless smokers are able to hold their breath for a certain time, it becomes extremely difficult to give up the habit. The minimum thresholds are about 31 seconds for men and 20 seconds for women.

The good news is that with a little effort and guidance you can train to hold your breath longer, which can improve overall health, fitness and sports performance. Exercises that include repetitive cycles of low impactive breath holding have been shown to help in the control of snoring episodes, sleep apnea, and asthma attacks.

Of course you can overdo it too. You may have heard about unbelievable breath holding records. In 2012, German Tom Sietas held his breath underwater for 22 minutes and 22 seconds, beating Denmark’s Stig Severinsen’s previous record by 22 seconds. However, unlike Severinsen, Sietas hyperventilated for an extended time of 20 minutes with oxygen beforehand. The women’s record is 18 minutes, 33 seconds, set by Brazillian Karoline Meyer in 2009. Prior to her attempt, she hyperventilated with oxygen for 24 minutes.

The current non-oxygen aided records are much lower. The men’s record is held by French born Stéphane Mifsud in 2009 at 11 minutes, 35 seconds. Russian Natalia Molchanova took the woman’s in 2011 at and 8 minutes, 23 seconds.

Chasing these very long breath holding times is extremely dangerous and there is concern that permanent brain and tissue damage can result. Around 100 free divers die every year trying to stay under water longer and deeper. Even world champions make mistakes – Natalia Molchanova died when diving in the Mediterranean in 2015. So don’t try it! Stick with the safe methods based on so-called ‘minimally intermittent hypoxia’ exercises to improve your daily wellness and fitness levels.


“Breath-holding and its breakpoint,” Parkes MJ, Exp Physiol. 2006 Jan;91(1):1-15

“Breath-holding time in normal subjects, snorers, and sleep apnea patients,” Taskar V, Clayton N, Atkins M, Shaheen Z, Stone P, Woodcock A, Chest. 1995 Apr;107(4):959-62

“Clinical Predictors of Respiratory System Loop Gain in Healthy Subjects and Patients with Obstructive Sleep Apnea,” L. Messineo et. al., American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine 2018;197:A1241

“Distress tolerance and duration of past smoking cessation attempts”. Brown RA , Lejuez CW , Kahler CW , Strong DR, Journal of Abnormal Psychology, Feb 2002, 111(1):180-185

“A study of reduction in breath-holding time in smokers and recovery among ex-smokers in bus depot workers”, B Sudha et. al., International Journal of Health & Allied Sciences, Vol. 1 (3) Jul-Sep 2012

“Breath-holding endurance as a predictor of success in smoking cessation”, P. J. Hajek, et. al. Addictive Behaviors, 12, pp. 285-288, 1987