Vital Capacity Definition

Vital capacity is the amount of air that the lungs can expel after having been filled completely. The vital capacity represents the change in volume from completely emptied lungs to completely filled lungs. In human medicine, vital capacity is an important measure of a person’s respiratory health. A healthy adult will have a vital capacity between 2 and 5 liters. A severely decreased vital capacity is an indication of restrictive lung disease, in which the lungs cannot expand fully. If the vital capacity is normal, but the lungs are still not functioning properly, it could be indication of a obstructive lung disease, in which the lungs are clogged or blocked in the airways.

The vital capacity can be measured with the use of a spirometer, which can also separate the different components of the vital capacity. As seen in the following spirograph, the vital capacity consists of the expiratory reserve volume, the tidal volume, and the inspiratory reserve volume. The expiratory and inspiratory reserve volumes are the volumes of air taken in and exhaled above and beyond normal breaths, while the tidal volume represents the standard, low-volume breath.

Lung volumes

Vital Capacity Formula

There are two formulae for vital capacity, based on the gender of the subject. In both of the following formula, h represents height in centimeters, while a represents the age of a person in years.


Vital Capacity = (21.78 – 0.101a) x h


Vital Capacity = (27.63 – 0.112a) x h

Vital capacity is typically measured in cubic centimeters, a measure of volume. These formulas simply show the average vital capacity for a man or woman of a specific age and gender.

For instance, a 35 year old woman who is 160 cm should have the following vital capacity:

Vital Capacity = (21.78 – 0.101(35)) x 160

Vital Capacity = 2,919.2

If the woman blows into a spirometer and only has a vital capacity of 2,000 cm3 it would be an indication that there was something wrong with her lungs, as they are not able to expand all the way open. Many different diseases, conditions, and genetic conditions can cause a decreased vital capacity.

  • Tidal Volume – The volume of air breathed in an out during normal breaths.
  • Expiratory Reserve Volume – The extra volume of air that can be pushed out of the lungs when forced.
  • Inspiratory Reserve Volume – An extra amount of air that can be inhaled, increasing the lung capacity.
  • Residual Volume – An amount of air that cannot be expelled from the lungs, which keeps them from collapsing.


1. What is the target vital capacity of a 42 year-old male who is 190 cm tall?
A. 3290
B. 4000
C. 4356

Answer to Question #1
C is correct. When you plug the patient’s age and height into the above formula, you should come to answer C. This means that an average 42 year-old who is 190 cm tall will have a vital capacity of 4356 cm3, or 4.356 liters.

2. What happens to the vital capacity of a 4 year-old with a hotdog stuck in his throat?
A. It decreases
B. It increases
C. It stays the same

Answer to Question #2
A is correct. Since his lungs can no longer take in any air due to an obstruction in the lungs, this is the same as an obstructive lung disease. The size and shape of the child’s lungs are the same, but the hotdog is physically stopping air from entering the lungs. Bronchial tubes leading to the lungs can become swollen and stop air in the same way. This child should be okay if someone administers the Heimlich maneuver, which forces the residual volume of air of the lungs, forcing the hotdog out.