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Eur Respir J. 1993 Feb;6(2):237-47.

The large lungs of elite swimmers: an increased alveolar number?

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Institute of Respiratory Medicine, Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, Camperdown, NSW, Australia.


In order to obtain further insight into the mechanisms relating to the large lung volumes of swimmers, tests of mechanical lung function, including lung distensibility (K) and elastic recoil, pulmonary diffusion capacity, and respiratory mouth pressures, together with anthropometric data (height, weight, body surface area, chest width, depth and surface area), were compared in eight elite male swimmers, eight elite male long distance athletes and eight control subjects. The differences in training profiles of each group were also examined. There was no significant difference in height between the subjects, but the swimmers were younger than both the runners and controls, and both the swimmers and controls were heavier than the runners. Of all the training variables, only the mean total distance in kilometers covered per week was significantly greater in the runners. Whether based on: (a) adolescent predicted values; or (b) adult male predicted values, swimmers had significantly increased total lung capacity ((a) 145 +/- 22%, (mean +/- SD) (b) 128 +/- 15%); vital capacity ((a) 146 +/- 24%, (b) 124 +/- 15%); and inspiratory capacity ((a) 155 +/- 33%, (b) 138 +/- 29%), but this was not found in the other two groups. Swimmers also had the largest chest surface area and chest width. Forced expiratory volume in one second (FEV1) was largest in the swimmers ((b) 122 +/- 17%) and FEV1 as a percentage of forced vital capacity (FEV1/FVC)% was similar for the three groups. Pulmonary diffusing capacity (DLCO) was also highest in the swimmers (117 +/- 18%). All of the other indices of lung function, including pulmonary distensibility (K), elastic recoil and diffusion coefficient (KCO), were similar. These findings suggest that swimmers may have achieved greater lung volumes than either runners or control subjects, not because of greater inspiratory muscle strength, or differences in height, fat free mass, alveolar distensibility, age at start of training or sternal length or chest depth, but by developing physically wider chests, containing an increased number of alveoli, rather than alveoli of increased size. However, in this cross-sectional study, hereditary factors cannot be ruled out, although we believe them to be less likely.

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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