Exercise is a trigger for an estimated 90% of people with asthma. ‘Exercise-induced asthma’ can, understandably, make many people nervous about performing exercise. However, with the right precautions, most people living with asthma can exercise safely, reaping the long-term benefits it offers.
What is Exercise-Induced Asthma?
Symptoms of asthma, such as coughing, wheezing, and shortness of breath, are caused by a narrowing of your airways. When this is caused by exercise, it is referred to as exercise-induced asthma.
The prevailing theory as to why exercise causes your airways to narrow revolves around your breathing. Most people breathe through their mouths when they exercise. While this is perfectly normal and allows you to inhale more oxygen, the air is not being warmed in the same way it is when you breathe nasally.
Cold air is dry and dry air irritates your airways, which can cause inflammation and subsequently narrows your airways. It is thought to be the same reason why many people find their asthma symptoms to be worse in the winter.
It’s estimated that around 90% of people living with asthma suffer an exacerbation of symptoms when they exercise.
People who do not have asthma can also experience asthma-like symptoms when they exercise, also caused by the narrowing of the airways. In these cases, the term exercise-induced bronchospasm is preferred over exercise-induced asthma, as the latter gives the erroneous impression that exercise can actually cause asthma.
Exercise-induced bronchospasm is common among elite athletes. It is particularly prevalent among participants of cold-weather sports, such as Nordic skiing, supporting the theory that cold, dry air is a significant risk factor.
It is also prevalent in those competing in indoor sports, such as swimming, and endurance athletes, suggesting some other environmental factors may be involved.
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How to Exercise Safely with Asthma
While exercise-induced asthma may cause you to be anxious about exercising, if your asthma is well controlled you can usually exercise safely. The best way to ensure this is to take your medication as prescribed.
If you’re unsure where to start or you are worried, you should speak to your doctor about how well your asthma is currently being controlled, the types of exercise that would be most suitable for you, and to develop a plan for exercising safely.
There are also a few practical steps you can take:
- Always carry your blue inhaler to relieve symptoms should they occur
- Always carry your phone so you can contact somebody in case of an emergency
- If you exercise in cold conditions, wrapping a scarf around your mouth and nose can help warm the air
- Alternatively, perform indoor exercises when it’s cold
- Perform a good warm up and warm down (at least 10 minutes for each) before and after exercising
- Avoid possible triggers during exercise. For example, when the pollen count is high, or certain environments (such as swimming pools, which could be caused by chlorine in the water)
- Don’t push too hard, too soon. Improving your fitness gradually is the safest way of exercising, especially if you are just starting out
- Have a clear plan for what to do should symptoms occur
Asthma & The Benefits of Exercise
Regular exercise offers significant health benefits and may even help control your asthma and reduce symptoms.
In general, exercise can:
- Lower your heart rate and blood pressure
- Help your body manage blood sugar levels
- Lower your cholesterol
- Improve your mental wellbeing
- Strengthen your bones and muscles
- Reduce pain
- Improve your sex life
- Help you sleep better
- Lower your risk of a massive number of conditions, from heart disease to Alzheimer’s
Regarding asthma specifically, exercise can:
- Improve your lung function, which helps avoid breathlessness
- Strengthen your breathing muscles
- Aid weight loss/help you maintain a healthy body weight. This helps reduce your risk of asthma attacks, which have been found to be more common in overweight and obese people
- Improve your immune system, helping protect you from getting coughs, colds, or the flu, which can trigger asthma symptoms and attacks
- Reduce stress, which is also believed to be a trigger for asthma symptoms
When performed safely and within your capabilities, the benefits of exercise vastly outweigh the risks for the majority of people living with asthma.
Looking for Inspiration?
Some of the world’s top athletes over the years have overcome asthma and exercise-induced bronchospasm to reach the very top, including:
Paula Radcliffe is the fastest female marathon runner of all time, clocking a sensational time of 2 hours 15 minutes as she won the 2003 London Marathon. It is one of three London Marathons victories for Radcliffe, along with three New York Marathon crowns and one Chicago Marathon title.
She achieved all of this despite living with asthma and anemia since childhood.
Former Los Angeles Rams/St. Louis Rams and Pittsburgh Steelers running back, Jerome Bettis, was diagnosed with asthma in his teenage years. Despite concerns the condition would curtail his sporting ambitions, Bettis went on to become a Superbowl winner in 2005 and was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame a decade later.
When Jackie Joyner-Kersee was diagnosed with asthma while at UCLA, she hid it from her coaches for fear that they would make her stop running. As a child, she’d been taught that asthma prevents people from doing anything athletic. However, once she had it under control, she proceeded to become one of the greatest athletes of all time, winning golds in the long jump and heptathlon at the 1988 Olympics, the latter of which she retained four years later.
It wasn’t until David Beckham moved to LA Galaxy that it was revealed he has asthma, which he has lived with since childhood. It did not prevent him from sweeping up titles in England, Spain, the US, and France, playing for some of the biggest soccer/football clubs on the planet.
One of his former teammates at Manchester United, Paul Scholes, also lives with asthma.
While not everyone can reach the same heights those listed above have done, they go to show that asthma – when properly controlled – need not stand between you and your personal exercise goals.
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