What is Tidal Breathing?

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  • Written By: Erica Stratton
  • Edited By: Lauren Fritsky
  • Last Modified Date: 29 January 2019
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Tidal breathing is the inhalation and exhalation method by which mammals breathe. In particular, it refers to the amount of air used when at rest and when breathing functions are automatic. Tidal volume, or the lung's capacity to hold and process air, is measured by doctors trying to study or diagnose respiratory and other health problems.

During tidal breathing in humans, the chest muscles automatically flex along with the lungs. Non-mammals do not use this type of breathing. By contrast, insects have side vents which remain closed until they need to exchange oxygen. Plants absorb oxygen through small holes (stomata) located on stems and leaves, and fish get their oxygen from filtering water through their gills.

To measure tidal breathing, the medical establishment uses several methods. One way is to have the patient wear a special kind of face mask, which will measure the volume of air he breathes out. Measurement can also be taken though fastening bands around the chest and measuring their expansion. Often, measurements are taken when the patient is sleeping or at rest so as to get the most accurate measurement of lung capacity. Measurements from active individuals are also often used during respiratory studies, however.


Measuring tidal breathing has allowed people to set definite standards for healthy respiration. Humans have an average capacity of six liters of oxygen. They do not, however, use their full lung capacity during regular respiration, inhaling only half a liter with each breath on average. Athletes and those born at higher altitudes will tend to have a slightly larger lung capacity. Those who smoke will also have a smaller lung capacity than non-smokers.

Tidal breathing measurements have been used to create treatments for underdeveloped lungs in premature infants, and this medicine has allowed more premature babies to survive. There has also been increased concern with more cases of childhood asthma arising. Studies of tidal breathing have become particularly useful in gauging the effectiveness of asthma medication.

This breathing has also been referred to as "ceiling breathing," because it only uses the top half of the lungs. Singers, yoga practitioners, and others can learn to alter this style of breathing even while at rest through practicing techniques for "floor breathing and "wall breathing." "Floor breathing" utilizes the diaphragm muscle, which brings air all the way to the bottom of the lungs instead of only using the upper lobes. "Wall breathing" focuses on the movements of the rib cage.


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Post 5

This is a good explanation.

Post 4

@orangey03 - You could live at a higher altitude to increase your lung capacity, but you would have to stay there to do any good. The lower atmospheric pressure at high altitudes makes runners who live up there, like me, have greater capacities.

I live at an altitude of 8,000 feet, and my trainer told me that we only have 74% as much oxygen here as those at lower altitudes have. Our bodies adapt by making more red blood cells.

When I come down to sea level, my larger lung capacity only lasts for about 12 days. After that, the concentration of red blood cells fades.

Post 3

I know that lung capacity is a good indicator of how long a person will live. I have read that females have a 20-25% lower lung capacity than males. Also, tall people have greater capacities than short people.

I am a short female, so I am trying to find ways to increase my lung capacity. One thing I am doing that I have heard will be helpful with this is regular cardio exercise. The large muscles must do rhythmic motions, and this consistent movement demands more oxygen. This ups my breathing rate and challenges my lungs and my heart, and ultimately it will stretch my lung capacity.

Post 2

I find it comforting that with tidal breathing, we never fully empty our lungs of air. The air that remains after we exhale is called residual volume.

I recently saw an informative program that discussed the breathing process of humans. I did not know this, but besides just filtering out carbon dioxide and taking in oxygen, our respiratory system also warms and humidifies our air. You never really think about it, but when it’s really cold in the winter, it would hurt to breathe that air if it wasn’t warmed at least a little.

Every time we exhale, we remove about the same volume of air that we inhale. The residual volume is like that little bit of your drink that always remains in your glass at a restaurant when the waiter continuously refills it, never letting you run totally dry.

Post 1

I did not know that our breathing was called tidal breathing, but I totally understand why. I have often said that the ocean is the only non-living thing that breathes.

With each crashing wave, it releases built-up tension and power, just like we release when we exhale. With each drawing in of the spent water, it gains more momentum and the ability to repeat the process, just like we gain strength as we inhale.

Also, just like tidal breathing is accomplished at rest without any extra effort, the ocean's "breathing" occurs without any attempt to sustain on its part.

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