It’s no secret that exercising with asthma can be challenging. For those suffering from asthma, any shortness of breath triggers fears that an attack could hit. It’s scary. But you’re not alone. Approximately 25 million, or one in 12, people have been diagnosed with asthma in the United States alone.
Some asthmatics shy away from exercise because of their symptoms. But, according to the Institute for Quality and Efficiency in Health Care, in some cases, cardio may actually help achieve better control of breathing and stabilize the effects of asthma. According to a 2015 BMJ asthma study, of 643 asthmatic adults, the patients who partook in frequent physical activity had better control of their symptoms, more than their counterparts who did not work out.
So, while asthma has no cure, exercise may be the key to making the chronic disease more bearable. We spoke with Henry Kanarek, MD, who specializes in allergies, asthma, and immunology, to further break down the relationship between exercise and asthma. Keep reading for more on how to prepare for and live a healthy, fitness-based lifestyle with asthma.
What’s the difference between asthma and exercise-induced asthma?
“Asthma is a disease where the bronchioles open and close, which makes your chest tight,” says Kanarek. The number one trigger for asthmatics is a virus or cold. So, it’s possible to not feel any effects of asthma while exercising. But 70-90 percent of people suffering from chronic asthma experience exercise-induced asthma. Symptoms, such as shortness of breath, chest tightness, coughing, and wheezing, are triggered by physical activity.
We know exercise helps the lungs and body. When we workout, we improve blood flow and increase lung functions. “Swimming, jogging, or riding a bike are all great options for those with asthma,” says Kanarek. But what about those with asthma triggered by exercise? Talk to your doctor about your specific symptoms and their severity. He or she will likely recommend an inhaler you can use during workouts.
Do you always need to use an inhaler when working out?
In short, no. But if you do feel tightness in your lungs, not just shortness of breath, Dr. Kanarek recommends taking a daily inhaler with a steroid medication to stop the exercise-induced asthma flare-ups. “Using a daily inhaler will prevent scarring of the lungs, improve lung function, and allow for normal activity,” he says.
Consult with your doctor about the best plan of action to reduce your wheezing while working out. If you are concerned about your lung capacity during exercise, Dr. Kanarek suggests you ask your doctor to perform a spirometry to measures your lung function. Also ask for a nitrous oxide test to evaluate inflammation of your lungs. Both tests will help determine if you might benefit from a daily medication or if you should stick to using a rescue inhaler on a need-be basis.
Things to remember for exercising with asthma.
Create a customized asthma action plan with your doctor
This should be based on your symptoms and capacity. If your asthma is under control when you’re not active, it should be safe for you to partake in physical activity. Your doctor may advise that you use a beta-agonist inhaler a quarter of an hour before your workout.
Evaluate your current fitness level
This includes your workout routine. If you exercise rarely or moderately, don’t dive headfirst into a more extreme regime. Slowly progress and intensify your workouts. Keep track of what triggers your breathing to feel more strenuous and what feels good. Check out these cardio classes for every fitness level.
Know your asthma triggers
If you have trouble with pollen avoid exercising during days with high pollen count. Opt for an indoor workout in the summer and winter if the extreme cold or heat bother your breathing. If you live in a city, be sure to check the pollution levels before you head outside for any physical activity. Always adjust to what is best for you and your body.
Always keep an emergency inhaler handy
This is especially important when exercising. A fanny pack may be dorky or uncomfortable while running but it sure beats facing an asthma attack alone and without access to life-saving steroids.
Find a workout buddy
Exercising with a friend can relieve some of the anxiety that comes with the fear of a potential attack. Ask your workout buddy to become familiar with your asthma action plan and the assistance you might need should you have an asthma attack.
Make Your Condition Known
If you’re on a sports team, working out at a gym, or exercise with a trainer make sure your coach, trainer, or gym manager know that you have asthma. They’re likely trained on how to recognize an attack and how to handle an emergency.
Wear a Medical ID Bracelet
If you’re exercising alone consider wearing a medical ID bracelet. At the very least program your phone with your medical conditions.
Never skip a warmup or cool down.
Stretch your muscles, do 30-second sprints, and most importantly, breathe deeply. Make sure your breathing feels normal before and after your workouts.
Breathing exercises are important for a safe and efficient workout. Inhale deeply through your nose and out through your mouth. As you’re exercising with asthma, try to keep breaths as even as possible to keep the lungs calm and functioning normally.
Pay Attention to Your Symptoms
If your breathing feels unusual when exercising with asthma, you should stop. You may experience shortness of breath, chest tightness, wheezing, or coughing. Get ahold of your breathing or use a rescue inhaler to assist you. Never push through these symptoms. Breathe deep and steady to calm down your mind and body as you regain a regular air flow.
Ultimately having asthma shouldn’t prevent you from living a fit and healthy lifestyle if you want to. And, in some cases, exercising with asthma can actually help symptoms. Always consult with your doctor before changing your exercise regimen or asthma action plan.