Exercise is a common trigger for asthma symptoms. Many people with asthma may experience difficulty breathing, coughing, wheezing, or chest tightness during or after exercise. However, most people with asthma can successfully participate in their exercise of choice with proper guidance and treatment. Exercise has been shown to benefit all individuals, including those with asthma.
A prominent review of 19 studies (involving 695 people) on exercises for asthma was published in 2012. The review found that exercise for asthma is safe, improves heart and lung fitness, and enhances quality of life. The review concludes that people with asthma should be encouraged to exercise without worrying that their symptoms will get worse.
Exercising safely with asthma
People with asthma may be more sensitive to extremes in temperature, dry air, allergens, and pollution. At rest, breathing through the nose moistens, warms, and filters air before it gets into the lungs. With exercise, most people breathe through their mouth, which may trigger asthma symptoms, so people exercising with asthma may feel better breathing in through the nose and out through the mouth. People with asthma should not overexert themselves, as this may trigger asthma symptoms. Consistent exercise is generally better tolerated, but patients with asthma should stop exercising for significant symptoms.
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 the lungs to lots of warm, moist air, which is less likely to trigger asthma symptoms. A comprehensive medical review of eight studies of children and adolescents from 2013 showed that swimming increases lung function and cardiopulmonary fitness, without any serious side effects in patients with stable asthma.
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.
Other potential physical activities for people with asthma include
- golf, and
No activity has to be off-limits with 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.
Tips for exercising with asthma
It might be helpful to talk to a doctor before starting an exercise routine. This is especially important with asthma symptoms that worsen with exercise. A doctor experienced in the management of asthma can help find the best exercises and asthma medications. Many people with asthma benefit from taking a short-acting bronchodilator (such as albuterol [Ventolin, Proventil, Proventil-HFA, AccuNeb, Vospire, ProAir]) about 15 minutes before starting exercise. In extremely cold or hot weather, or if there is a high level of pollution, it may best to exercise indoors. This also applies to patients with both asthma and allergies when the pollen count is high.
Here are some good tips for exercising with asthma:
- Warm up first.
- Try to breathe through the nose as much as possible.
- Wear a scarf or mask over the nose and mouth in cold weather.
- Avoid outdoor exercise when pollen counts are high if allergies are present with asthma.
- Avoid exercising outdoors if air pollution is high.
- Do not exercise when sick.
- Include a cool-down routine after exercise.
- Do not over exert during exercise.
- Carry an albuterol inhaler for rescue if needed.
Exercise is an important part of a healthy lifestyle -- even with asthma. Aim to work out for about 30 minutes, four to five days a week. Obesity and a sedentary lifestyle may negative impact asthma. Therefore, exercise is an important part of a healthy treatment for asthma.
American Academy of Allergy Asthma & Immunology: "Asthma and Exercise: Tips to Remember."
American College of Sports Medicine: "Exercise-Induced Asthma."
Beggs, S., et al. Cochrane Database Syst Rev 4 Apr. 30, 2013
Bidwell, AJ. Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, August, 2012.
Chandratilleke, MG. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, May, 2012.
Cleveland Clinic: "Exercise and Asthma."
Ohio State University Medical Center: "Asthma and Exercise."