It is a well-recognized adage of our modern, mostly sedentary society that exercise is good for you. Regular exercise can reduce your risk of heart disease, lower your cholesterol, help to control your weight, and improve your body image. But what are the effects of exercise if you have asthma? Sometimes, exercise can set off your asthma and cause wheezing, chest tightness, cough, and shortness of breath. Some persons experience their asthma almost exclusively when they exercise and are said to have “exercise-induced asthma.” Is it also good for persons with asthma to exercise?
It has long been said that swimming is the best exercise for persons with asthma, and with good reason. The air that you breathe while swimming is usually warm and moist and so the effect of exercise on the breathing tubes is less.
Exercise triggers bronchial narrowing in asthma by bringing large volumes of air deep into the chest. When breathing quietly, about one gallon of air enters the lungs during each minute. The air that enters the lungs is warmed and has moisture added to it by the nose and mouth and throat. By the time the air reaches the bronchial tubes inside the chest, it has nearly the same temperature and moisture as the walls of the bronchial tubes themselves. On the other hand, if you run to catch the bus or to catch a fly ball in baseball, your level of breathing may double or triple to two or three gallons per minute or more. Then you exceed the ability of the nose and mouth to warm and humidify completely the inspired air.
Could Exercise Relieve Asthma Symptoms?
In the past, patients with asthma have been discouraged from exercising for fear that it would trigger attacks and shortness of breath. However, new research suggests that asthma patients who exercise for 30 minutes every day experience significant symptom relief.
Researchers from Concordia University, the Hôpital du Sacré-Coeur de Montréal and several other institutions found that those who engaged in optimal levels of physical activity on a regular basis were nearly two-and-a-half times more likely to have good control of their symptoms, compared with those who did no exercise. The workout doesn’t have to be strenuous.
“We’re not talking about running marathons here,” says Simon Bacon, PhD, the study’s lead author and a professor in the Department of Exercise Science at Concordia. “Just 30 minutes a day of walking, riding a bike, doing yoga – anything active, really can result in significant reduction of asthma symptoms,” he said.
“We need to keep in mind that doing something is better than nothing, and doing more is better than less. Even the smallest amount of activity is beneficial,” Simon Bacon said. “Our study shows that those who were able to engage in physical activity on a regular basis year-round benefit most.”
Out of the 643 people who were studied, 245 reported that they never exercised and only 100 met the 30 minutes of exercise per day. This unfortunately is how it is for the asthma community at large.
“Those numbers reflect the population in general,” says Bacon, director of the Centre de réadaptation Jean-Jacques-Gauthier from Hopital du Sacré-Coeur. “Forty percent of people don’t exercise at all,” he says.
Prof. Bacon suggests if you cannot exercise outside, then go to the gym, or failing that, use a staircase or the shopping mall; just be creative and find environments indoors where cold is not an issue.
He hopes doctors will take note of their findings and perhaps even prescribe exercise: “It would be great to see physicians recommending physical activity to patients with asthma, alongside traditional pharmacological treatments”. Getting regular exercise to become an important part of the asthma community could do wonders for all who struggle with controlling their symptoms.
Generally, the more active your asthma, the more susceptible you are to developing symptoms after exercise. The goal of good asthma care is to keep your asthma quiet and to allow you to exercise as fully as you wish. As you know, many Olympic athletes have asthma. Their asthma has not inhibited their exercise performance, and your asthma need not limit yours.