Asthma is a chronic condition that affects the airways in your lungs. It makes the airways inflamed and swollen, causing symptoms like coughing and wheezing. This can make it difficult to breathe.
Sometimes, aerobic exercise can trigger or worsen asthma-related symptoms. When this happens, it’s called exercise-induced asthma or exercise-induced bronchoconstriction (EIB).
You can have EIB even if you don’t have asthma.
If you do have EIB, you might be hesitant to workout. But having it doesn’t mean you should avoid regular exercise. It’s possible for people with EIB to workout with comfort and ease.
In fact, regular physical activity can decrease asthma symptoms by improving your lung health. The key is to do the right kind — and amount — of exercise. You can determine what this looks like for you by working with a doctor.
Let’s explore how exercise affects asthma, along with ideal activities for people with the condition.
Some types of exercise can reduce or prevent asthma symptoms. They work by making your lungs stronger without worsening inflammation.
Specifically, these activities minimize symptoms because they:
- Increase endurance. Over time, working out can help your airways build up tolerance to exercise. This makes it easier for your lungs to perform activities that usually make you winded, like walking up stairs.
- Reduce inflammation. Though asthma inflames the airways, regular exercise can actually decrease inflammation. It works by reducing inflammatory proteins, which improves how your airways respond to exercise.
- Improve lung capacity. The more you work out, the more your lungs get used to consuming oxygen. This decreases how hard your body must work to breathe on a daily basis.
- Strengthen muscle. When your muscles are strong, the body functions more efficiently during everyday activities.
- Improve cardiovascular fitness. Exercise improves the overall conditioning of the heart, improving blood flow and the delivery of oxygen.
In addition to physical activity, certain breathing exercises can also reduce asthma symptoms. These methods help by opening the airways, moving fresh air into the lungs, and reducing the effort of breathing.
Examples of breathing exercises for asthma include:
- diaphragmatic breathing
- nasal breathing
- pursed lip breathing
However, it’s still important to take your medications as directed. This is the best way to control asthma symptoms, especially during exercise.
In general, the best exercises for asthma involve brief bursts of exertion. Gentle, low-intensity activities are also ideal. These exercises don’t overwork your lungs, so they’re less likely to cause asthma symptoms.
Everyone is different, though. Be sure to consult your doctor and pay attention to your body.
You can try:
Swimming is one of the most recommended exercises for people with asthma. Compared to other activities, it’s less likely to cause asthma-related symptoms due to:
- moist, warm air
- low pollen exposure
- pressure of fluid on the chest
Despite these benefits, chlorinated pools can cause symptoms in some individuals. Use caution if you’re new to swimming in pools.
As a low-intensity activity, walking is another great choice. This form of exercise is gentle on the body, which makes it easier to breathe.
For the most comfortable experience, only walk outside when it’s warm. Dry, cool air can trigger or worsen your symptoms. You can also walk on a treadmill or indoor track.
Another option is to enjoy a gentle hike. Choose a trail that’s relatively flat or has a slow, steady incline.
If you have allergies, check the local pollen count before hiking. Only hike if pollen levels are low.
If you have EIB, try biking at a leisurely pace. This is another gentle activity that doesn’t involve constant exertion.
You can also do indoor cycling on a stationary bike.
Short-distance track and field
If you’d like to run, opt for short-distance running activities such as sprints.
Long-distance running on a track or outside may not be recommended in people with more uncontrolled asthma due to the ongoing effort required.
Sports with short bursts of activity
The following sports are appropriate for people with asthma. These activities involve intermittent breaks, which are gentler on the lungs.
Sometimes, it can be difficult to tell if your symptoms are caused by asthma or just being “out of shape.” In both cases, the usual symptoms include:
- shortness of breath
- chest tightness
- sore throat
- upset stomach
Typically, these symptoms start after 5 to 20 minutes of working out. They might continue for 10 to 15 minutes after you stop exercising.
It’s common to have these symptoms if you’re out of shape. If you have EIB or asthma, the symptoms will be significantly more severe and will likely include coughing and wheezing.
Another sign of EIB is excess mucus production. This occurs due to airway inflammation and usually won’t happen because of poor fitness condition.
In addition to choosing less strenuous activities, you can also follow these tips to reduce your asthma symptoms:
- Use an inhaler before exercise. Your doctor can prescribe a rescue inhaler as a pre-exercise treatment. These inhaled medications will relax the airways, making it easier to breathe during physical activity.
- Take medication for long-term control. If a pre-exercise inhaler doesn’t manage your symptoms, you may be given another medication. This could include oral drugs or additional inhalers that decrease airway inflammation.
- Warm up and cool down. Always warm up before exercise to let your body adjust. When you’re done, gradually stop the activity.
- Wear a mask or scarf. Cover your nose and mouth when it’s cold outside. The dryness of cool air can tighten your airways.
- Limit your exposure to pollen and pollution. If you’re allergic to pollen, exercise inside when pollen levels are high. Stay in areas with minimal air pollution.
- Avoid sports with continuous activity. Basketball, soccer, and long-distance running can be hard on the lungs if your asthma is poorly controlled. Avoid sports that are done in the cold, like cross-country skiing and hockey.
Most importantly, take breaks as necessary.
You should also ask your doctor what you should do if you have an asthma attack while exercising. By having a plan in place, you can workout with confidence.
Even if you have asthma, you shouldn’t avoid exercise altogether.
Regular physical activity is essential for managing health, improving energy, and reducing the risk of chronic disease. If you already have a chronic condition, regular exercise can help you manage it.
This includes asthma. With a doctor’s guidance, regular exercise could help asthma by:
- increasing your lung capacity
- promoting blood flow to your lungs and heart
- improving endurance and stamina
- decreasing airway inflammation
- improving overall lung health
In addition to prescription medication, exercise can help you gain better control of your asthma symptoms.
If you experience the following asthma symptoms during exercise, talk to your primary care physician:
- severe coughing
- difficulty breathing
- chest tightness or pain
- unusual fatigue
- excess mucus production
Depending on your symptoms and medical history, you’ll likely have to see a pulmonologist or allergist-immunologist. These professionals specialize in treating and managing asthma.
People with asthma should still get regular exercise. And with the right approach, physical activity can benefit your asthma symptoms.
Exercise helps by increasing lung capacity and reducing inflammation, which improves your overall lung health.
Despite these benefits, you should still take your medicine as prescribed. Your doctor can determine the best approach for exercising safely and effectively.