man underwater with a snorkel holding his breath
Looking to set a world record for holding your breath underwater? You'll have to beat over 22 minutes. (Photo: Jakob Owens/Unsplash)

How Long Can Humans Hold Their Breath?

It depends—but you can hold your breath longer in cold water

Looking to set a world record for holding your breath underwater? You'll have to beat over 22 minutes.

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Article Updated on 10/21/2022

The answer: It depends on the rules.

As the Daily Mail explains, humans set breath-holding records in water because they “can hold their breath twice as long underwater as they can on land.” The reason: the “diving reflex,” in which the body slows its heart rate and metabolism in order to conserve oxygen and energy when submerged in cold water. The pulse rate in an untrained diver, the Daily Mail says, will decrease 10 to 30 percent when underwater. But professional divers can reduce theirs by more than 50 percent.

This brings us to records. The event in question—holding one’s breath underwater for as long as possible without moving—is officially called “static apnea,” and there are two ways static apnea records are kept: for dives performed after breathing in pure oxygen, and for dives performed without pure oxygen.

The Guinness Book of World Records allows divers to hyperventilate for up to 30 minutes with pure oxygen before they submerge for their record attempt. This practice, Discovery News reports, helps the body expel carbon dioxide, buying time before carbon dioxide levels become toxic. Boosting oxygen stores, on the other hand, buys time before oxygen levels fall too low, which leads to brain and tissue damage.

Current Breath Holding World Records

Editor’s update: On March 27, 2021, Budimir Šobat of Croatia set a new world record of 24 minutes 37 seconds. 

  • In 2012, German freediver Tom Sietas held his breath underwater for 22 minutes and 22 seconds, besting Dane Stig Severinsen’s previous Guinness record by 22 seconds.
  • The women’s record is 18 minutes, 32.59 seconds, set by Brazillian Karoline Meyer in 2009. Prior to the attempt, she hyperventilated with oxygen for 24 minutes.
  • The International Association for the Development of Apnea, which records all freediving world records, does not allow the use of pure oxygen before a static apnea attempt. The current non-oxygen aided records stand at 11 minutes, 35 seconds for men (Stéphane Mifsud, 2009) and 8 minutes, 23 seconds for women (Natalia Molchanova, 2011).

Severinsen has said that he hasn’t suffered any brain damage from his breath-holding record attempts. Still, Discovery News notes, “studies of freedivers have turned up abnormalities in brain scans and markers that suggest brain damage. No one knows what the long-term consequences will be of feats like these.”

Watch Severinsen’s Guinness World Record Breath Hold

Wonder what a static apnea record-setting attempt looks like? Check out this Discovery video of Severinson’s 22-minute breath hold:

How Do Humans Compare to Other Breath-Holding Mammals?

When it comes to our mammal brethren, homo sapiens are no match for aquatic creatures. The unheralded Cuvier’s beaked whale has a recorded dive of 222 minutes. That tops the list of whales and seals, the gold-medal standard for breath holders. Many species can comfortably hold their breath for over 100 minutes including Elephant seals, Sperm whales, and Weddel seals.

For land mammals, the surprise champion is—get ready for it—the sloth! Sloths have been recorded holding their breath for 40 minutes, making them adept underwater explorers. Beavers have a good showing as well, clocking in at 15 minutes.

The average human can hold their breath for about 2 minutes, though most of us would struggle to get 1 minute without practice. Don’t feel bad though. Dolphins can only last about 7-10 minutes, which is far less than the human world record (the dolphin world record is currently unknown).

Lead Photo: Jakob Owens/Unsplash