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How to exercise safely when you have asthma

How to exercise safely when you have asthma

Exercise and asthma: there’s no reason they can’t go hand in hand.

Unfortunately, activities like running can sometimes bring on symptoms. But, if you have asthma, you'll want to exercise regularly to help keep your lung capacity at a good level (and otherwise stay healthy).

The temptation might be to avoid exercise so you don't trigger symptoms. But keeping active is important for good general health (both physical and mental), so even if you have asthma, it isn't something you can afford to skip altogether.

Daniel Atkinson
Medically reviewed by
Daniel Atkinson, GP Clinical Lead

Thankfully, exercising with asthma isn’t impossible. It can take a little bit of planning, but there are ways you can exercise safely with asthma, and minimise your chances of aggravating symptoms.

Table of contents
Medically reviewed by
Dr Daniel Atkinson
GP Clinical Lead
on October 28, 2022.
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Daniel
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Should you exercise if you have asthma?

Exercising can have lots of positive effects on both your mental and physical health. So yes, you should still exercise if you have asthma. But it’s important to take steps to make sure you’re doing it safely. You can’t limit asthma entirely, but you can limit the effects it has.

Probably the most important preparation you can make when exercising: always bring your inhaler with you. If you don’t feel safe when exercising, then it’s not going to have the positive impact on your health that you want. You’ll just feel more stressed and anxious rather than enjoying it.

The best exercises for asthma

Swimming

Swimming is a highly recommended exercise for asthma sufferers. You can go at your own pace and the warm, moist air and pressure of the water on your chest can help to alleviate some of the symptoms.

Another advantage is that it tends to be an indoor activity, so you won’t be exposed to pollen. Since pollen can be a trigger for some people, exercising in a way that doesn't expose you to it can reduce the risk of an attack happening.

Sometimes chlorine can trigger symptoms of asthma. So you should keep this in mind before your swim, and get out if you feel like your symptoms are coming on.

Walking

Many people don’t see walking as ‘proper’ exercise. Although it’s not high intensity, it’s still a good way of staying fit. The great thing about walking is that you can do it at your own pace. You can take long walks at a heavy pace or short ones around the block. It’s easy to do and you can tailor the intensity to what you need.

You can burn 200-300 calories from a steady one-hour walk, so even though it’s not as intense as other activities, it’s still effective.

If you’re walking outdoors then it’s worth thinking about the weather. Colder climates can aggravate symptoms, so try to pick a nice, warm day. Otherwise, just wrap up warm and consider covering your mouth and nose with a scarf.

Sports with short bursts of activity

Long and strenuous bouts of exercise can be difficult if you suffer from asthma. As they may worsen coughing and restrict breathing. This is why short bursts of activity with regular breaks can be beneficial. It means you can exercise without causing too much strain on your lungs.

Recommended activities that fit into this category include team sports like football or rowing, cycling, weight training, and to a lesser extent golf.

What to do if you experience asthma symptoms during exercise

If you get a chesty cough or start producing mucus while exercising, the first thing to do is stop and allow yourself to recover, and use your reliever inhaler if you need to. After a rest you may feel like you’re able to start again, but if you do, it’s important to go at a slower pace.

If you experience asthma symptoms while exercising, it’s worth having a chat with a doctor to review your asthma treatment. It could be that you need a different type of inhaler.

How to prevent asthma symptoms during exercise

If you get symptoms of asthma during or after exercise, it can be because your condition isn’t as well managed as it could be. You can help to prevent these symptoms from occurring by regularly using your preventer inhaler every day, as directed by your doctor.

If you’re completely new to exercise, then it might be worth consulting your doctor before you start. They can give you some advice, such as what the best inhalers for runners might be. They could also decide to review your treatment, and give you a different type of medication or inhaler if you need it.

You could also look to plan your exercise in advance to avoid triggers, like planning short breaks between walks and runs so that you don’t overexert yourself. Doing warm-ups and cool-downs before and after your activity might also help to alleviate the effects of asthma.

What is exercise-induced asthma?

Exercise induced asthma (or EIB) is a form of asthma that flares during or after strenuous exercise. It’s caused by a narrowing of the airways in the lungs, and can cause shortness of breath, wheezing, coughing, tightness in the chest, fatigue, and reduced athletic performance.

It’s possible to have both, but exercise-induced asthma isn’t quite the same as regular asthma. Regular asthma can give you the above symptoms without you exercising. You’ll only see symptoms of exercise-induced asthma during or after strenuous activity or exercise.

How to prevent exercise-induced asthma

There are a few steps that you can take to reduce the chances of an exercise-induced asthma attack from happening:

  • First of all, speak with a clinician about exercise-induced asthma treatments. If you don’t have treatment already then they might be able to prescribe you with something that can help to prevent any symptoms.
  • Plan and prepare for your exercise. Stick to routes that avoid triggers, take regular breaks, and plan for the weather (cold, moist weather can cause a higher chance of causing symptoms).
  • Prepare for your exercise with a slow warm-up routine.
  • When exercising, pay attention to how you feel. If you notice shortness of breath or increased coughing then stop and take a break.
  • Once you have finished exercising, cool down with a gentle workout.

Can exercise cure asthma?

Clinical trials have shown that exercise has a positive effect on easing asthma. Although it doesn’t cure it completely, it can decrease inflammation in the airways. Asthma is a lifelong condition with no known cure. So keeping it well managed and avoiding asthma triggers is the best thing to do so that it doesn't have too much of a negative impact on your life.

How to keep safe when you exercise

Well-managed asthma can give you the confidence to take part in exercise and even try new activities. The best way to get the most out of exercise and keep safe when you have asthma is to follow the treatment guidelines set out by your clinician. This might include taking your preventer inhaler each day.

Another thing you can do is make sure you take your reliever inhaler with you when you exercise. Even if you’re only planning on doing a short burst of activity, you should always carry it, just in case it’s needed.

It sounds obvious, but when exercising outside of the house, take your mobile phone with you. If you do experience any trouble while exercising, you’ll be able to call somebody for help. If you notice your symptoms getting worse, or if you suffer an attack, follow the steps for what to do if you experience an asthma attack.

And once you’ve recovered from an asthma attack you should speak with your doctor or asthma nurse so that they can review your condition and treatment. They might be able to help you identify what triggered the attack. They might also recommend an update to your asthma action plan. 

Exercise can and should be enjoyable, even if you have asthma. If you want to find out how you can embrace exercise and include it in your regular routine then speaking to your doctor is a good first step.

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