Medical Author: Alan Szeftel,
Medical Editor: William C. Shiel, Jr., MD, FACP, FACR
On many occasions, patients have asked me whether exercise will help prevent asthma. This issue is receiving more attention in light of the global increase in the prevalence and severity of asthma and the ongoing efforts to explain this phenomenon. Could a change in lifestyle somehow be responsible for this trend in asthma? Scientists who work in this area have pointed out several childhood developmental and lifestyle differences during the past 40 years.
Let us go back in our minds to the 1960s. It is late afternoon and school is out. Little Johnny and Jane come racing through the back door to find mom greeting them with a glass of milk and a sandwich or an apple. The kids eat their snack and are soon in the neighborhood yard with their friends, playing ball or climbing trees. Now, let us fast forward to the 21st century, where Jason and Jessica let themselves in the house because their parents are not home from work yet. They drop their backpacks on the floor, walk straight to the kitchen, and grab cookies or a bag of potato chips and a soda. They then collapse on the couch, switch on the TV, and vegetate. They may remain there until bedtime, fitting in homework during the commercials. If their favorite programs are not on, some kids settle in front of the computer, surfing the Internet, or playing video games.
There has obviously been a tremendous change in children's lifestyle, from being active and exercise-based to sedentary and technology-based. This lack of exercise, and the possible obesity associated with it, may in fact have played a role in the increasing burden of asthma.
Exercise helps to stretch the lungs and bronchial tubes, which in turn may help reduce the resistance to breathing. Even though the bronchial tubes become inflamed (as occurs in asthma), the positive effects of exercise may help prevent symptoms. The lack of exercise may also contribute to obesity, which may also be a risk factor in asthma. For those who already have developed asthma, aerobic exercise might trigger attacks, but these can easily be prevented by using an inhaler (such as albuterol) before the activity. Asthma that is triggered by exercise should certainly not prevent a person from having an active lifestyle or participating in sports. Although we still have much to learn about the causes of asthma, some contribution to its increased incidence might be related to the significant lifestyle changes over the past 40 years.