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How to Exercise with Asthma

Reading time | 5 mins

Navigating life with asthma has been a continuous learning curve for me. Like anything in life, the more experience you have with something, the more knowledge and understanding you develop. This has certainly been the case for me and my understanding of asthma.

Exercise is an asthma trigger of mine and I have struggled to understand it for a long time. When I experienced asthma symptoms as a child, I thought that all the other children felt the same. I thought that everyone developed a cold pain in their throat after running! I didn’t realise that the other children didn’t react to exercise in the same way as me.

Unsurprisingly, I never felt like I was one of the fastest runners in my class or one of the ‘sporty’ children. I didn’t win races on sports day and I didn’t really succeed in team sports, as the majority of them were based outdoors and involved a lot of running. I found running outdoors particularly difficult on cold days as I would experience chest tightness and shortness of breath. 

My asthma made me feel unfit

In my teenage years, I started to recognise the discomfort that was brought on by exercising outdoors . As a result of growing up with asthma, I didn’t have much experience playing outdoor sports like Gaelic football. I certainly wasn’t confident in my ability to start playing them as a teenager, so I didn’t get involved in any team sports or athletic clubs.

At school, we once had to complete a fitness test called the ‘Bleep Test’ which was designed to test our stamina and overall fitness levels. It involved us running between two boundaries, while continuously increasing our speed until our bodies gave up. Naturally, I hated this test and it was just a reminder of how unfit I was.

In truth, I wanted to avoid heavy cardiovascular exercise and outdoor sports as much as possible. I attempted jogging, but didn’t get far until that familiar cold pain developed in my chest and neck, resulting in me needing a break. I’d always put this down to a lack of fitness on my part, not my asthma. So I decided to try an exercise that I would enjoy without worrying about my lack of skills, speed, or how unfit I felt I was.

I attended dance classes a couple of times a week and took part in annual performances and competitions. This was something I felt like I was good at. Luckily, my asthma didn’t flare up when I danced and it gave me the confidence that I never got from trying to play outdoor sports as a child. In physical education classes, we explored all sorts of exercises – indoor hockey, football, athletics, step aerobics, and gymnastics.

Realising my asthma boundaries

When I went to college, I took part in a five-kilometre fun run. This time, I decided to do some research on preparing for this type of activity with asthma. The Asthma Society of Ireland recommends to use a reliever inhaler 15-minutes before warming up, as well as ensuring that people around you are aware that you have asthma. So that’s what I did. And I was determined to do well and to complete the race.

Within minutes I realised that this wasn’t going to work out for me. My chest started to feel tight and my breathing became shallow and uncomfortable. I had no choice but to stop running, and after walking for several kilometres, I gave up. I found this difficult because my housemates (who shared the same exercise routine as me) were able to complete the run by alternating between running and jogging.

Choosing the right type of exercise

As a young adult, I continued to exercise indoors and attended yoga and Pilates classes when I could. Dancing throughout my teenage years had helped me to develop the co-ordination and flexibility needed to be good at both of these. Finally, I felt like I’d found an exercise where I felt strong and fit.

However, I was still determined to tackle the outdoor exercises. There are so many charity events like fun runs, walks, and outdoor challenges, and I didn’t want to have to shy away from them forever.

So in January 2019, I decided to take on a new fitness challenge. My friend is a personal trainer and he designed a programme for me that would improve my strength, while also developing my overall physical fitness.

Initially, I was anxious to attempt the cardiovascular elements of the plan which included cycling, running, HIIT (high intensity interval training), and rowing. We started off slowly and built up my stamina over time. I had a lot of asthma flare ups in the beginning but these gradually lessened as my fitness level increased. At the end of the 12-week programme I couldn’t believe the progress I had made.

Eventually, I could complete the cycling, running and rowing without needing my reliever inhaler. This was such a big achievement for me.

Always be prepared for a flare-up

Last summer, a group of friends and I decided to take part in a challenge called ‘Hell and Back’. This involved completing various tasks and obstacles over an eight-kilometre track on a working farm. After all my hard work, I felt confident that I could complete this challenge. Although I wasn’t nervous about an asthma flare-up, I still came prepared with my reliever inhaler strapped to my arm.

One part of the challenge involved carrying a log up a steep hill and coming back down again. As I climbed the hill, I felt my chest tightening and my breath becoming shallow. I was determined to keep going and focused on the hard work I had done in preparation for the challenge.

Reaching the top of the hill was a big accomplishment for me. It taught me that with the right mindset and the correct preparation, asthma shouldn’t stop me from feeling fit. It also reminded me that regardless of how physically fit I am, I need to remain cautious and prepared for any asthma symptoms I may experience.

To remain prepared for a flare-up when I exercise, I keep the following items in my gym bag:

  • My reliever inhaler. I check this regularly to ensure it is in working order and within the use-by date.
  • My phone. I have my emergency contacts saved as ICE (In Case of Emergency).
  • My Asthma Attack Card. I ordered this at no charge from Asthma.ie. It explains ‘The 5 Step Rule’ for managing an asthma attack.
  • Hand sanitizer. The gym isn’t always the most hygienic place. I use hand sanitizer to help reduce the risk of infection.

UK/MED/19/0270 October 2019