More on Brain Oxygen and Lung Health: Vital Capacity

by Steve Riggs, BS, RRT-NPS

Vital capacity may not sound like a very exciting subject. However it is a very important subject and one that we address frequently at NACD. So it’s worth your time to learn a little about what it is and why it is significant.

There is a lot of talk about vital capacity (VC) when we talk about what assists good oxygenation. What is vital capacity? When we talk about how much air our lungs can hold, we can say that the entire lung has a total capacity. Total Lung Capacity (TLC) is the amount of air our lungs can hold when completely full. If we blow all the air out of our lungs that we can, then we have some amount still there because our lungs are made never to be totally empty. We call the amount still left residual volume (RV) and the amount that we blew out vital capacity (VC). So our total lung capacity (TLC) equals our vital capacity (VC) plus our residual volume (RV). TLC = VC + RV. That’s the scientific way it is written and talked about.

Why is this important to our health and the health of our children? If our lungs and chest are exercised and well inflated we can maintain our very important vital capacity. Keeping our vital capacity where it needs to be will maintain our oxygen levels; and improving our vital capacity certainly suggests that we can improve our oxygen levels. In most studies, athletes and mountain climbers have larger vital capacities than the average person. Larger vital capacities can help keep oxygen at levels where we have more oxygen available to the brain and body.

That all sounds good. But what does it mean for our health and in particular the health of people that have challenges? It definitely means two important things. First, that we can maintain and improve our oxygen availability to the brain, and second that we can keep our lungs open and functioning well enough to minimize the chances of having health problems. If we don’t keep our lungs open and clear we can develop pneumonia, and small areas of our lungs tend to collapse (called micro-atelectasis) from not being properly inflated. When either of these takes place oxygen availability will decrease!


  • We know having good supplies of oxygen available to the brain helps us heal, process thoughts, and utilize the brain in ways that help us become more functional mentally and physically.
  • We know keeping our lungs open and fit are great ways to maintain and improve oxygenation to the brain. We all need to practice breathing correctly and improve lung and chest muscle fitness.
  • We know we need to have our oxygen levels as stable and consistent as possible. Exercising our lungs, staying as mobile as possible, and belly breathing help normalize our lungs’ airflow.

For your convenience we stock breathing exercisers (Expand-A-Lung) in the NACD bookstore.  http://www.nacdbookstore.com/products/expand-a-lung

Reprinted by permission of The NACD Foundation, Volume 25 No. 5, 2012 ©NACD

Please note: This page is for educational and informational purposes only and may not be construed as medical advice. The information is not intended to replace medical advice offered by physicians.


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