Your resting breathing rate is how many breaths per minute you take while your body is at rest. Like other vital signs such as heart rate, blood pressure, and temperature, your breathing rate offers important clues about your health.
In this article, we’ll cover what a normal resting breathing rate is, what factors affect it, and what it can tell you about your health.
What is resting breathing rate?
Resting breathing rate is also known as respiratory rate. Just like your heart rate, your respiratory rate is controlled by your autonomic nervous system.
Each inhalation delivers oxygen to the organs and tissues of your body. Each exhalation releases carbon dioxide. If your body is struggling to get enough oxygen, your breathing rate will pick up.
Breathing rate is more sensitive than other vitals. It can be affected by infections, emotions, activity, temperature, and much more.
What is a normal resting breathing rate?
Your breathing rate will vary depending on your age. But a normal respiration rate for adults is considered 12 to 20 breaths per minute.
Children have higher resting breathing rates than adults. The chart below will give you a breakdown of normal breathing rates for each age group:
Resting Breathing Rate Chart by Age
Normal respiratory rate (breaths/minute)
Birth – 6 months
30 – 60
6 months – 12 months
30 – 50
1 year – 3 years
24 – 40
3 years – 5 years
22 – 34
5 years – 12 years
16 – 30
12 years – adult
12 – 20
Keep in mind that women tend to have slightly higher breathing rates than men. Since women’s lungs are smaller, they have a lower lung capacity and take in less oxygen per breath.
If your respiration rate is less than 12 or over 25, it may be a sign of a medical condition.
What causes a high respiration rate?
High respiration rates, known as tachypnea, are considered anything over 20 breaths per minute.
Many things can lead to high respiration rates, including:
- Anxiety – Anxiety triggers your body’s fight-or-flight response. This causes your heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing rate to rise.1 One of the telltale signs of panic attacks is hyperventilation or rapid breathing. Usually, breathing returns to normal once the anxiety passes.
- Fever – When you have a fever, your breathing rate increases. This is your body’s way of trying to cool down.
- Dehydration – Severe dehydration can lead to fluid loss in the body.2 When this happens, your breathing rate may pick up to make up for the loss of fluids.
- Heart problems – Your lungs work in tandem with your heart to deliver oxygenated blood throughout your body. If your heart function is poor, your heart may struggle to get blood to your internal organs. This may cause your respiration rate to increase.3
- Lung conditions – Asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder (COPD), and other lung conditions can increase your breathing rate.4
- Infections – Respiratory infections such as flu and pneumonia can inflame the lungs and make it difficult to breathe. This may cause your respiratory rate to rise.
- Allergic reactions – Anaphylaxis is a severe allergic reaction that causes rapid breathing.5
- Acidosis – If too much acid is in the blood, it can lead to a build-up of carbon dioxide. This can speed up your breathing as your body tries to remove excess carbon dioxide. Often this happens for metabolic reasons, such as diabetic ketoacidosis.6
- Medications – Aspirin and stimulants such as caffeine and ADHD meds can increase your breathing rate.
What causes a low respiration rate?
Low respiration rates, also known as bradypnea, are considered anything less than 12 breaths per minute.
Low breathing rate may be due to several factors, including:
- Sleep apnea – This sleep disorder can cause breathing to slow down or even stop for brief periods of time.7
- Hypothyroidism – Thyroid hormones play a key role in regulating your respiratory system. Hypothyroidism can weaken respiratory muscles, which may slow down your breathing.8
- Brain injuries – Many people with brain injuries or stroke struggle with respiratory issues.9 This may lead to a slower respiration rate.
- Drug overdose – Alcohol poisoning and opioid overdose can both lower breathing rates.10 11
- Medications – Some drugs such as benzodiazepines, barbiturates, and painkillers can decrease respiratory rate.12 13
How resting breathing rate relates to your health
Respiratory rate is a health marker that can help identify at-risk patients. When measured, it can reduce serious adverse events, such as cardiac arrest.
Yet of all vital signs, respiration rate is the least recorded.14 This is unfortunate, as research shows that breathing rate predicts high-risk conditions better than blood pressure or heart rate.15
In fact, one study found breathing rate helped predict whether health conditions would worsen after emergency room discharge.16
Resting breathing rate is also a marker of physical fitness. Exercise doesn’t just strengthen your muscles and heart—it improves your lung function. That’s why people who are more physically fit tend to have lower resting breathing rates than those who are sedentary.
Research also proves what yogis have said for centuries. Slow breathing has powerful physical and psychological benefits.
Slowing the breath down increases lung efficiency, improves heart function, and increases heart rate variability. It also shifts the nervous system away from “fight or flight” mode into a calm parasympathetic state.17
How to test resting breathing rate
There are several ways to measure your breathing rate. One simple way is to count how many breaths you take in one minute.
To measure your resting breathing rate:
- Relax and sit down.
- Set a timer for one minute.
- Count the number of times your chest rises.
- Record that number.
Counting your breaths can bring up anxiety for some people, which can change your breathing pattern. You can ask a family member to count for you to avoid this.
Keep in mind that even knowing your breaths are being counted can alter your breathing. One study found patients who were aware their breath was being recorded had breathing rates 2.13 breaths lower than those who were unaware.18
Luckily, there are many devices that can measure your resting breathing rate for you. Fitness trackers, smartwatches, and oximeters are all helpful tools for measuring your breathing rate.
A newer option for testing respiratory rate is transdermal optical imaging (TOI). This novel technology uses a digital camera to detect blood flow changes in the face. This data is then used to measure heart rate, heart rate variability, resting breathing rate, and more.19
No matter which method you choose, if your resting breathing rate consistently falls outside the normal range for your age, talk to a healthcare professional.
How to improve resting breathing rate
There are many things you can do to improve your lung health and resting breathing rate. As an added bonus, these practices also boost your overall health and well-being.
Move your body
Exercise keeps your lungs healthy and improves lung capacity. The more you exercise, the stronger your muscles get. And the stronger your muscles are, the less oxygen they’ll need when you’re at rest.
Breathwork is a powerful way to practice breath control. Focus on taking deep, slow breaths and making your exhales longer than your inhales. If you could use more guidance, try these deep breathing exercises.
Laughter is also a simple way to boost lung capacity and give your abdominal muscles a workout. Laughing not only helps your body expel stale oxygen, but it also boosts your mood and relieves stress.
Certain vitamins and minerals are shown to improve lung function in patients with COPD. These include vitamin C, vitamin D, calcium, and magnesium.20
Try herbs & essential oils
Herbs and essential oils have been used since ancient times to promote respiratory health. Specifically, one study found that essential oils containing eugenol decreased breathing rate in test subjects.21 Eugenol-containing oils include clove, cinnamon, and basil.
Resting breathing rate, or respiratory rate, is a vital sign that can offer clues about your lung health. Research shows it is also a helpful marker for predicting at-risk health conditions. An average resting breathing rate for adults is between 12 to 20 breaths per minute. If you fall outside that range, you can practice lifestyle habits to improve your lung function. Regular exercise, breathwork, and laughter all help keep your lungs healthy for years to come.
About Mindy Palmer
Mindy Palmer is a wellness writer and certified holistic health coach. She enjoys inspiring others to live healthier lives by creating informative content for leading-edge health and wellness brands.
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