Does the thought of a strenuous bike ride or vigorous jog make your chest tighten? You’re not alone.

Exercise-induced asthma (EIA) — the narrowing of your airways and the consequent wheezing, coughing and shortness of breath that occur with vigorous exercise — is more common than you might think. About 80 percent of people with asthma experience these types of symptoms when they run fast or for long distances.

Having EIA, however, is no reason to avoid exercise (let’s face it: There really are very few reasons to avoid exercise). Regular aerobic exercise helps lower your weight and lift your mood — both important factors to managing asthma. And, of course, regular workouts can improve your self-image and give you a sense of control — no small thing when you’re living with a chronic condition.

QUIZ: Find Out If Your Mood Needs a Lift

The Cold, Dry Truth
Let’s clear a few things out of the way: If you have asthma, your wheezing and shortness of breath are not due to being in poor physical condition. And building up your cardio quotient, while benefiting you in other ways, is not going to “condition” your lungs into an asthma-free state.

EIA occurs because the lining of your bronchial tubes is highly sensitive to changes in both air temperature and humidity. Under resting conditions, you breathe through your nose, which warms and humidifies the air; when you switch to mouth breathing during exercise, you bring cold, dry air (even during summer) right into your lungs. Your airways’ linings swell up; the smooth muscles that surround your bronchi spasm, reducing airflow and making it difficult to breathe.


Try This

Pack an exercise kit: Put your inhaler and water in your fanny pack, and wear your watch to time your warm-up.

Up, Up With Exercise
The good news is that with the right medication, warm-up techniques and even nutrition, almost anyone with asthma can enjoy any sport. Yes, that’s right: any sport.

While for years, people with asthma were told about “good” and “bad” activities — swimming was good because of the warm, humid pool air; cross-country skiing was bad because of the cold, dry winter air — a new wisdom is emerging: Choose any exercise you like, and do it regularly. Here’s how to take advantage of the upsides of exercise:

  • Dose up. Take two puffs of your inhaled medications 10 to 15 minutes before you start moving. While you’re exercising, make sure to bring your rescue inhaler along. While most of us huff and puff in the midst of vigorous exercise, pay attention to red flags such as coughing, chest tightness, and wheezing – those could be signs of an exacerbation. If you experience these symptoms, stop and use your rescue inhaler. 
  • Warm up. An asthma attack is most likely to occur during the first five to 15 minutes of exercise. Warm up, though, and your chance of an attack drops significantly. Researchers speculate that a slow, gradual buildup to activity allows your body to produce adrenaline, which can naturally inhibit the inflammation in your lungs. For instance, if you’re planning to do a half-hour jog, walk briskly for five to 15 minutes. Hitting the field for a softball game with co-workers? Do some stretches and calisthenics on the sidelines (you’ll look like a more serious competitor as well!).
  • Read up. Particles and toxins in the air — big surprise — can trigger reactions in some people. So check the weather report for ozone and particle pollution levels, and if either is high, exercise in the morning (when levels are lower) or indoors.  And if the outside air is particularly cold, you may want to bring a scarf or mask to breathe through while you exercise.
  • Drink up. Toting a water bottle during exercise is almost a no-brainer — but for people with asthma, reaching for water can help keep you from reaching for your inhaler. When you’re dehydrated, the cells in the linings of your lungs are also dehydrated and stressed, which then causes them to release fatty molecules (called mediators) that spur and sustain inflammation in the lungs. Next thing you know, your chest is tightening and it’s difficult to breathe. Plus, dehydration also leads to drier, stickier mucus (ugh) — and people with asthma produce more of that lung gunk in the first place — which is more difficult to cough up, making symptoms worse. So suck down plenty of water before, during and after your workout to prevent an attack.
  • Get oiled up. While nobody recommends abandoning your inhaler, recent research shows that fish oil supplements can help reduce the frequency and severity of attacks.

MORE: Asthma and Exercise: On Your  Mark, Get Set, Go!

by Rachel Brand