Asthma and Exercise

Apr 14, 2021


Asthma is a medical condition that most people have heard of. We usually think of “asthma attacks” where a person has wheezing or trouble breathing. Or, we think of people getting short of breath when they try to exercise or do other vigorous activity.

Who is at risk for asthma? You might be at risk if you have family members who have asthma, if you had viral respiratory infections as a child, have allergies or occupational exposure to dust or fumes, if you smoke, if you live in an area with air pollution, if you are overweight or obese. Environmental factors in your home like house plants or mold can also trigger asthma.

Asthma can be caused by allergies to many things including pollen, dust, mold, pet dander, perfumes, grass, hay, foods, etc. People who have allergies will often have asthma symptoms during spring, summer and fall when plants are blooming and growing. Asthma can also be caused by food allergies. If you are able to identify what triggers asthma symptoms, you might be able to avoid those things.

Asthma can also be triggered by exercise. This is called Exercise-Induced Asthma. Common symptoms of exercise-induced asthma include coughing, tightness in the chest, shortness of breath or wheezing that starts when a person runs or plays sports.

Asthma has three basic parts. These are Bronchoconstriction, Inflammation and Increased Mucus Production. This video from the American Lung Association explains these three parts. The airways in our lungs are wrapped with muscles. When the muscles tighten and make the airway narrow we start to wheeze or feel short of breath, this is bronchoconstriction. This can be treated temporarily with rescue inhalers that help to relax the muscles and open the airways. But, rescue inhalers do not treat the chronic problem of inflammation.

Inflammation is an important part of asthma that some people are not aware of. Inflammation causes our airways to swell and narrow and increases mucus production. Rescue inhalers cannot reverse this problem. Inflammation has to be treated with other medications or measures to reduce the swelling and mucus, and it is best to try to prevent it. Inflammation does not improve quickly, so it is best to stop it before it becomes a problem.

Inflammation can also be reduced by avoiding processed foods, cured or preserved meat, sugary foods. Some people find that dairy products or other specific foods worsen their symptoms. Inflammation is also reduced by eating more plants and herbs and spices, especially turmeric. And, stress creates inflammation, so finding ways to reduce and manage stress can improve symptoms.

So, should people with asthma avoid exercise? No, people with asthma benefit from exercise just like everyone else. Exercise is also an excellent way to reduce inflammation. Michelle Jenck, director of Community Well-Being for Adventist Health Tillamook shares her experience. “It might surprise people that I have exercise-induced asthma that prevented me from playing sports and being active as a child. When I did try to run and play, I almost always had severe asthma attacks. It really affected my self-esteem. As I got older, I began to gradually add cardiovascular training to build my lung capacity. My doctor prescribed a daily maintenance inhaler and suggested I use my rescue inhaler about 30-45 minutes before vigorous exercise. With these changes, I have been able to improve my health through exercise. My favorite activity is interval runs because I can get my heart rate up in short bursts to build endurance but also have recovery periods that help me avoid the bronchoconstriction that would often lead to an asthma attack.”

The most important step is to have an Asthma Management Plan in place to prevent and manage symptoms. People with asthma might need to use medication before exercise to prevent symptoms. They also might need to use preventive medication to control inflammation in the lungs. Either way, an active lifestyle is good for everyone. Walking is a great exercise because it is less likely to trigger asthma symptoms. Consider joining one of the walking groups in Tillamook County. The American Lung Association has a page of information about exercise and asthma.

When people have frequent, or on-going, asthma symptoms, they often have inflammation that needs to be treated. If you have asthma symptoms or think you might have asthma, talk to your health care provider to see if you would benefit from treatment. Sometimes, people with asthma will need to see a specialist for allergy testing and allergy shots to control their allergies. With an asthma management plan in place, people with asthma can run, play tennis, basketball, bike or do other vigorous activities.

For more information about asthma, visit the American Lung Association web site, about living with asthma.

Dr. Ben Douglas has been providing healthcare for more than 35 years. He is board certified in Family Medicine and Lifestyle Medicine. His focus is keeping people healthy from birth through the golden years. In his free time, Dr. Douglas enjoys cooking, running, sailing and playing guitar.