What's the record for someone holding breath?

10 September 2019

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Question

What's the longest someone can hold their breath? And can you train for this?

Answer

Exercise expert Dan Gordon took on this question from Phil...

Dan - We've got to be slightly careful, because there's a lot of information out there which is slightly misleading. So the current world record for holding breath is eleven minutes thirty-three seconds.

Chris - Oh my goodness.

Dan - Now you will see that there are also reports out there of somebody being able to hold it for twenty four minutes and three seconds, so the caveat on that one is they were allowed to breathe 100 percent pure oxygen before. So what they did was they breathed 100 percent pure oxygen and it's still extraordinary. And then held their breath for twenty four minutes and three seconds. But if we go with what's recognised in breath holding circles, and it's actually part of the free diving community, so if you look at the free diving challenges, it's not just about how deep somebody can dive.

It's actually, the second challenge is having somebody lying just you know, in a swimming pool and holding their breath. And it was a couple years ago, 2016, it was eleven minutes thirty-three. Actually, there’s a  couple of real simple parts to this. We all have what's called mammalian dive reflex, and it's designed to prevent us from dying very very quickly in water. If you hold your breath, your heart rate slows down, and part of that is you start to get a vasoconstriction in the periphery. So what happens is that oxygenated blood rather than going into the limbs, is actually going primarily to the brain, still a lot going to the heart. But the majority is going to to the brain and we see this in any mammal.

Chris - Can I just clarify there Dan? So by pushing all the blood towards the central organs, heart, and brain, you're basically stopping the rest of the body having dibs into the oxygen that's in there. So those crucial organs, heart and brain, which are most oxygen deprivation sensitive they've got longer to have dibs at the oxygen you have got. Is that why this works?

Dan - So what's happening is, if you imagine you've got X amount of oxygen and you reduce the amount of oxygen going to the periphery, then that oxygen can be used. And the key variable here is the brain. What you don't want to be using is that oxygen in the limbs and so on and so forth. He's just burning up, in inverted commas, energy. The second part, and this is why all these records are broken in water, is we have what are called the trigeminal nerves, which are in the face and that actually if you put somebody's face into cold water, the trigeminal nerves are actually acted upon and they actually cause an inhibitory effect, again on heart rate.
So through the autonomic nervous system the heart rate then slows down. So you get not only the mammalian dive reflex but you get this secondary effect. And so when they go for these breath holding records, they always do them in fairly cold water.

Can we train for this? So I'm going to put a caveat here, which is please please please do NOT try this at home okay. Because what we don't want to hear is people passing out and fainting and so on and so forth. The first thing to recognise is that these individuals have incredibly large lungs. A typical lung capacity is four to six litres, most breath hold divers have a lung capacity in excess of 10 litres.

Chris - Do they always have that Dan, or have they got better?

Dan - You can't increase lung capacity. So this is one of the interesting things when you look at athletes, athletes can increase everything, you know heart size can increase, and muscle mass increase. Lung capacity cannot increase, you get what you're given. And so these guys have got this natural genetic endowments of about a 10 litre lung capacity which is fundamentally important. They've actually got increased haemoglobin concentration. They've got greater red blood cell counts. So what they've got is a greater oxygen transport system and oxygen utilisation system.

Chris - And a better reserve in the blood in the first place, they’ve got more places to store it for longer.

Dan - Correct. Correct. So there's a lot of work that's been done out in places like the Karolinska Institute, and what they found is that the key is relaxation. If you imagine that the brain is where the majority of this oxygenated blood is going to, the last thing you want to be doing is thinking about what you’re having for dinner, because as soon as you do that the brain is active. The brain is then going to use that very very limited store of oxygen. So there was some work that was done actually in the UK, a number of years ago, where they measured EEG patterns in breath hold divers and what they were looking at was when they got them to do just a breath hold. They were looking at the EEG patterns.

Chris - This is the brain wave activity?

Dan - This is the brain wave activity. And what they found is in the best breath hold divers, was that the brainwave activity just, it was almost like watching somebody shut the computer down. These signals just started to decrease, and the guys that were new to breath hold diving, actually had very active brains. So the first thing is relaxation. They talk about doing what's called progressive muscle relaxation, which is a technique that’s used to prevent things like anxiety, which is the idea that you go through tensing the feet first and relaxing the feet, then the calves, then the quadriceps, and you do this across the whole body to put yourself in a state of relaxation.

The second thing that you have to do, is what the best athletes do, it’s what's called lung packing. Whereby you basically over pack the lung with air. Most of us really don't actually use our lungs to their full capacity and lung packing is a technique whereby you use the glottis to, in essence, get more air into the lungs and inflate the lungs, inflate the lungs, inflate the lungs. There is a downside to this, which is why I'm saying please don't try this at home, which is that actually this starts to then cause decreases in carbon dioxide concentration. And so the net result is that people just start to pass out. What they showed in a number of studies is that you can take people who can hold their breath, typically most people can hold their breath for about a minute, minute and a half, and actually if you go through this progressive muscle relaxation and even do a very basic form of lung packing most people be able to get to four minutes, four and a half minutes.

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