Imagine for a moment that you’re in high school. It’s spring and you’re outdoors playing your favorite sport. You’re playing really well; your teammates are happy. Suddenly, your chest tightens and your mouth goes dry. You put your hands over your head to open your airways, but for some reason it feels like no oxygen is getting through. Then you’re hit by a wave of tiredness.
That was my experience playing tennis in high school. This would happen to me right at the peak of a match. Earlier in the match I’d be able to run across the court and back again, but only a short time later that seemed difficult, if not impossible.
It was a clear sign my asthma was kicking in full force — along with shortness of breath, chest tightening, and rapid breathing.
My experience as a young athlete is not uncommon. Roughly 90 percent of people living with asthma experience symptoms following or during exercise — and it may be an even more common cause of asthma symptoms for teenagers and young adults.
There’s a common misperception that people with asthma can’t (or shouldn’t) exercise. And after reading my tennis match anecdote you might be inclined to agree. But more and more research shows that exercise is possible for most people with asthma.
What the experts say
It’s well known that exercise is good for your overall health, but it may also be good for your asthma. A study conducted in the European Journal of Epidemiology found that decreased physical activity is a contributor to poor asthma control. In addition, people with asthma are more likely to put self-imposed restrictions on their physical activity to avoid any respiratory issues.
Conversely, several studies have found that even small amounts of aerobic exercise — such as walking three times per week — may help improve asthma symptoms and lung function.
In some cases, limiting physical activity makes sense and is the safe thing to do. For example, it’s probably not a good time to exercise if you feel like your asthma symptoms aren’t well controlled, if you’re experiencing a symptom flare or recently had an asthma attack, or if exercise might expose you to triggers like pollen or pollution.
However, with the appropriate symptom management plan, you can take control of your physical activity experience and achieve better outcomes.
According to the Department of Health and Human Services, adults should exercise 30 minutes a day with a minimum of 150 minutes per week of moderate physical activity. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to fitness, and you don’t have to do CrossFit to reap the benefits of exercise.
Depending on the season, you could try walking or running outdoors, or you could do these activities indoors at your local gym. Other types of exercise might include biking, water aerobics, ballroom dancing, canoeing, or lifting weights. The idea is that you’re moving for a consistent amount of time each week — so pick something you like to do.
Here are my tips for breaking a sweat with asthma.
Preparation is key
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 25 million Americans are living with asthma. Nearly half of those diagnosed with the disease had an asthma attack in 2008, but they could have been prevented by avoiding certain triggers and proper use of medications.
By using medications appropriately, especially controllers, and keeping asthma symptoms under control there are many things – including exercise – that may be possible for people living with asthma. So, first things first: Make sure to use your medications as directed. If your current treatment plan isn’t working well to control your symptoms, make an appointment with your healthcare provider to discuss other options.
Find a proper warm-up
Before I start any workout, I normally engage in a five-minute warm-up by jogging on the treadmill or doing speed squats. Since many symptoms can occur in the first 5 to 10 minutes directly after the workout, it’s important to start out slow and increase the intensity over time.
And don’t forget about the cool down phase! A few minutes of walking or light stretching can help you cool down from your workout, which may also help alleviate asthma symptoms after exercise.
Take enough breaks
I never realised the importance of taking breaks until I overdid it one day. I was sprinting on the treadmill and felt my chest and airway slowly constricting. Even so, I thought to myself, “No, I can do it!”
As a result, my recovery from that sprint was difficult and I needed my rescue inhaler. There’s pushing yourself, and then there’s knowing yourself. In that moment, I probably could have sprinted at a slower pace and achieved the same results without knocking the wind out of myself.
I’m not saying you should automatically set physical activity limits on yourself — there are plenty of professional athletes with asthma. What I am saying is that you need to respect and understand the level of physical activity that’s appropriate for you and gradually push those boundaries in a way that is safe with the support of your healthcare provider.
Vary your workouts
I don’t sprint every day and neither should you — unless that’s your passion and you know that it’s safe. Exercise can be done almost anywhere at any time, and it doesn’t have to be an elaborate workout with multiple sets or in a special gym.
Since I live in a city, walking has become a source of exercise when I don’t get to the gym. Our local Target is about two miles from my apartment and I normally walk there since it’s an uphill road. If I don’t buy too much, which is almost impossible, then I’ll walk back with a few bags or bring a backpack to carry everything. That’s about 30 minutes in each direction of consistent physical activity, surpassing the daily recommendation.
If you don’t live in a city, then you can also workout at home — there are tons of different types of workouts available online that require minimal equipment, or sometimes none at all.
I also like to do high intensity interval training (HIIT) workouts, as they provide a range of motions and there are moments to catch your breath called “active recovery.” There are a lot of resources out there to find modified workouts depending on your fitness level. I think it’s about getting creative and moving in ways that work for you and your schedule.