If you happened to be the Breath-Holding Champion of your friend group at the pool in elementary school, you undoubtedly felt pretty special about it and accomplished at the time. But, from a scientific point of view, is it actually a superpower to be good at holding your breath?
But before getting what breath-holding could mean for your health and well-being, it’s important understand what it does to your body on a physiological level. When you breath normally, you inhale oxygen and exhale carbon dioxide, but when you take a big gulp of air ahead of a breathing pause your body switches gears. “When holding your breath, your diaphragm has moved downwards to allow your lungs to expand, therefore increasing the capacity of the lungs to take in oxygen,” says internal medicine doctor Ehsan Ali, MD.
That extra oxygen isn’t the secret to holding your breath forever, though; the longer you override your body’s desire to push air out, the more carbon dioxide increases in your body (while, meanwhile, your oxygen levels deplete). “When holding your breath, the oxygen has been absorbed into your blood, but the carbon dioxide is accumulating. This stimulates the respiratory center in your brain, telling it that it needs to signal the lungs to breathe out to eliminate the carbon dioxide, which is toxic for the body in high levels,” says Dr. Ali.
“[Being good at holding your breath] is not a good or a bad thing, or indicator of how healthy you are,” — Ehsan Ali, MD
Though we all have the same biological response to holding in oxygen, some people are indeed better at it than others—but is that a good or a bad thing? The good news is current research has debunked the idea that not breathing for a minute or two can cause permanent damage. However, cerebral hypoxia, or low levels of oxygen in the brain tissue, can begin after about five minutes of being cut off from your oxygen supply. But so long as you don’t push that upper limit in your breath-holding competitions, you should be clear of those risks.
Even so, given Dr. Ali’s take on any benefits to glean from the practice, you might want to rethink flexing it as a skill at all. “It is not a good or a bad thing, or indicator of how healthy you are,” he says. But, he adds, people who participate in cardio-based fitness may have an easier time holding their breath because their lungs are stronger. Even if it might be reflective of strong lungs, though, breath-holding itself doesn’t stand to offer health or well-being benefits in its own right.
Similarly, having a high VO2 max—a metric that refers to your body’s ability to hold in oxygen during exercise—may also contribute to being good at holding your breath. But the reverse isn’t necessarily true, given that research hasn’t backed up the idea that practicing holding your breath (or being “good” at it) translates to having a better VO2 max.
Small studies do suggest that your ability to hold your breath may increase longevity, help brain tissues regenerate, and mitigate stress levels. But, since many of these studies are very small or conducted on non-human subjects, all of their findings should be taken with a grain of salt.
For now, the takeaway is this: There aren’t many science-backed benefits of being amazing at holding your breath. But hey, that doesn’t mean it’s not a great party trick or Hinge bio fun fact.