Best Exercises for Asthma: Yoga, Swimming, Biking, and Walking
William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR
William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR
Dr. Shiel received a Bachelor of Science degree with honors from the University of Notre Dame. There he was involved in research in radiation biology and received the Huisking Scholarship. After graduating from St. Louis University School of Medicine, he completed his Internal Medicine residency and Rheumatology fellowship at the University of California, Irvine. He is board-certified in Internal Medicine and Rheumatology.
If you're like most people with asthma, you may sometimes experience symptoms -- coughing, wheezing and tightness in your chest -- during or after exercising. But that's no excuse not to work out . You just need to be prepared and know your limits.
"If your asthma is under good control, you can and should exercise normally. Exercising [when you have] asthma can help reduce your symptoms, improve your breathing, and reduce your stress and anxiety," says Rachel Taliercio, DO, a lung and allergy specialist at the Cleveland Clinic.
"Many people with asthma assume that exercise is bad for them. That causes them to get out of shape, and that's bad for asthma," says Dr. Taliercio. A review of 19 studies (involving 695 people) on exercises for asthma was published in the Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews in 2012. The review found that exercise for asthma is safe, improves heart and lung fitness, and enhances quality of life. The author's conclusion is that people with asthma should be encouraged to exercise without worrying that their symptoms will get worse.
Having asthma means your lungs are more sensitive to things like cold air, dry air, pollen, and pollution. When you're not exercising, you probably breathe through your nose. Breathing through your nose moistens, warms, and filters the air you breathe before it gets into your lungs. But while working out, you probably breathe through your mouth. That can be tough on your lungs and can trigger asthma symptoms.
"We tell people with asthma to try to breathe in through the nose and out through the mouth. But once you start exercising, you forget how you are breathing. Being out of shape is another important cause of asthma symptoms during exercise," says Taliercio.
It is better to pick an exercise that is not too difficult for you. Try to do the exercise you have chosen four or five days a week. Don't push yourself to do an exercise that you are not in shape for.
"The best exercise is [one] that causes you to be just slightly out of breath. If you can talk comfortably while you are exercising, your exercise level is not passing the talk test," says Taliercio. That means you may not be working hard enough to receive all the benefits of exercising.
Best and Worst Exercises for Asthma
Swimming is one of the best exercises for asthma because it builds up the muscles you use for breathing. It also exposes your lungs to lots of warm, moist air, which is less likely to trigger asthma symptoms.
Yoga is another good exercise for asthma. A 2012 study published in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine found that yoga training over 10 weeks significantly improved quality of life scores for women with mild to moderate asthma . "A low intensity, beginner yoga class is a great way to start up your exercise program," says Taliercio.
Team sports that have some breaks in the action are usually fine, too. These can include:
No activity has to be off-limits just because you have asthma, but some sports are more likely to trigger asthma symptoms. These include cold weather sports, like cross-country skiing, and ice hockey, and endurance sports, like soccer or long-distance running.
Before Starting an Exercise Routine
"If you have not exercised for a while, talk to your doctor about how to get started safely," says Taliercio. This is especially important if you have asthma symptoms that flare up when you work out. Your doctor can help you find an exercise that's best for you and tell you how to exercise safely. You may need to use an inhaler before, during or after exercise.
"I usually recommend a short-acting bronchodilator, [such as] albuterol (Ventolin, Proventil, Proventil-HFA, AccuNeb, Vospire, ProAir), about 15 minutes before starting exercise," says Taliercio. "[And] if it's really cold outside, or if there is a high level of air pollution, I tell my patients to exercise indoors. This also applies to patients with allergies if the pollen count is high."