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Exercising with asthma

Step-by-step guide to exercising with asthma

If you suffer from asthma, you will be familiar with the symptoms of wheezing, chest tightness and shortness of breath that characterize the condition. Some of these symptoms can mimic the breathlessness that can occur during exercise, yet ironically exercise can bring about significant improvements to asthma sufferers’ quality of life.

Historically, an exercise prescription for an asthma sufferer would have been unheard of, but the value of following a carefully structured and monitored exercised training program is now widely recognized.

There are many examples of asthmatics that have reached the very pinnacle of their sports, including marathon world record holder Paula Radcliffe. If you suffer from asthma and are looking to both improve your fitness and your reliance on medication, follow the realbuzz step-by-step guide to exercising with asthma and improve your quality of life.

This guide includes advice on:

  • Exercise benefits for asthmatics
  • How to kick-start your training program
  • Training precaution
  • Correct training protocols
  • Exercise tips

Feel the benefit of exercise

In addition to the health, fitness and psychological benefits that regular exercise brings for the asthma sufferer, exercise can help your condition in many ways including:

  • Building general muscular strength and endurance
  • Strengthening the respiratory muscles
  • Improving your efficiency at utilizing oxygen
  • Increasing lung capacity
  • Decreasing sensitivity to dyspnoea (shortness of breath)
  • Reducing the frequency of exercise induced asthma (EIA) attacks
  • Decreasing airway sensitivity and hence, asthma attacks
  • Reducing dependency on medication

Altogether a great package of benefits for the asthma sufferer!

Safety first for exercising with asthma

Before you begin an exercise program there are a couple of basic precautions that you should take. Once they’re completed, you’re ready to improve your fitness.

  • Get a check-up: Book a check-up with your doctor to discuss your plans. Your doctor will actively support your actions and will also be able to offer you further advice pertinent to your condition.

  • Get a professional: Next, to maximize the benefits of your training, it is wise to link up with an exercise professional who is qualified to advise you on training precautions for asthma sufferers. Time spent at this stage will reap continual rewards because focusing on the correct training for you will result in faster and long-term progression. 

Go for a personal exercise best

Before each exercise session, you need to compare your peak flow reading with your personal best (pb) peak flow reading, so it is important to establish your pb. Over a two-week period, check your peak flow between two and four times per day, noting the readings. Prior to your training session, re-check your peak flow and compare it with your pb using the color coded table below to see whether it is safe for you to exercise.

Zone Green Yellow Red
% of peak flow pb 80% or higher 60-80% Below 60%
Assessment of condition Asthma is stable An exacerbation may occur Danger zone
Exercise prescription Training Take medication and return to training when peak flow improves. No training, seek medical attention

Locations for exercise

The swimming pool is an ideal environment for your training because it is moist and humid which will prevent your airways from drying out. However, you can still workout in other environments including the gym, studio and outdoors. Ideally, the gym and studio should be extremely clean with no dust to avoid further irritation of your airways. When exercising outside, avoid cold, frosty conditions because the cold air contains less moisture. Warm days are fine.

Training time

The exercise prescription for an asthma sufferer follows the basic training protocols that are applicable to everyone, including: warm-up, main session and cool-down, but with a focus on shorter bursts of exercise rather than extended continuous training.

For example:

  • Aerobic exercise: Workout at a very comfortable level of intensity, interspersed with occasional faster bursts. This system will help prevent your airways drying out through continuous heavy breathing because the majority of your session is at a lower intensity. Aim for three sessions per week, building up to a minimum of 20 minutes each workout.
  • Resistance training: Training with weights naturally lends itself to a stop-start type workout and hence is ideally suited to asthmatics. Focus on lighter weights and higher repetitions, taking as much recovery time between sets as you feel you need. One or two weekly sessions can significantly improve your strength.

Asthma exercise tips

Finally, to enhance your enjoyment of your sessions and to help you get the most from your training, follow the training tips below:

  • Think safe when exercising: For safety reasons and as a psychological boost, keep your inhaler close at hand during your workout. This is particularly important at the start of your program when your body is gearing up to the new challenge of exercise.
  • Go aerobic: Controlled cardiovascular exercise will dramatically improve your aerobic system. Focus on aerobic training more than resistance training exercises.
  • Warm-up before exercise: Always begin with a very thorough and gradual warm-up, 10 to 15 minutes is suitable.
  • Choose your exercise: Any exercise that gets your heart and lungs working will be beneficial, so walking, jogging, running, rowing, cycling and gym machines are all good. Swimming has been proven to be extremely beneficial because in addition to the damp atmosphere, your horizontal position can help clear mucus.
  • Cool-down after exercise: Always finish your exercise session with an extended cool-down, similar to your warm-up, which will help ensure that bronchospasm (narrowing of the airways) doesn’t occur.
  • Avoid stress during exercise: Not specifically aimed at your workout, but extremely relevant to your training, stress can be an asthma trigger factor and can also exacerbate the symptoms of an attack. Try and keep your exercise session relaxed (and enjoyable!) and also try and limit stress in general.

So, asthma is not a total barrier to exercise and in fact exercise can actually help your condition. By following the guidelines above, not only can your asthma symptoms reduce, you will also enjoy a whole host of exercise benefits including easier weight management, better all-round health and more energy. Breathing deeply can set you on the road to easier breathing 24 hours a day.

Comments (1)

  • Tentsmuir 'I cant say that the symptoms reduce (ie, at times of year when it is cold and damp, I have really bad nights). And seldom do i run with confidence without an inhaler. But In general, exercise has helped to control the condition. And if truth be told, it pushes me on to more: http://tentsmuir.wordpress.com/2012/06/10/running-with-asthma-diabetes/'

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