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Asthma & Exercise

Asthma and Exercise

A chronic respiratory condition that almost everyone has had some from of exposure to, which presents as inflammation of the airways is known as Asthma.

Asthma is a long-term condition, which reacts to certain ‘triggers’ causing a flare up, whereby the muscles around the airway squeeze tight, the airways swell and become narrow and there is an increase in mucus production. The narrowing of the airways causes a reduction in airflow which can result in symptoms such as wheezing, breathlessness, coughing and a feeling of tightness in the chest.

There are many different triggers which can induce an Asthma “attack” including exercise. Typically those with asthma are undergoing some form of pharmaceutical treatment in the form of controllers and relievers, but regular exercise should be included within an individual’s Asthma management plan. Exercise-induced asthma can be prevented with medication, and by preparing for exercise and physical activity.

When at rest, we breathe through our nose, which warms and moistens the air that travels to the lunge. Whilst we are exercising, we will often breathe more through our mouths, which causes cold and dry air to travel to the lungs and this can often irritate the airways. The cold and dry air can cause the muscles that surround the airway to tighten, and this can increase the chance of experiencing an asthma flare-up.

Keep in mind, that shortness of breath during or after exercise is common and completely normal. However, if any physical activity of exercise causes symptoms with no relief after rest, you may have exercise-induced asthma. These symptoms may include shortness of breath, feeling a tight chest, dry or a persistent cough and wheezing.

Benefits of Exercise

Exercise and physical activity are vital for keeping fit and healthy. Many people with Asthma often avoid or limit the amount of exercise they undertake to avoid any episodes of Exercise-Induced Asthma (EIA). However, with the appropriate prescription, Asthma should not limit exercise or any other physical activity. Most people with asthma can exercise to their full potential if they have good asthma control.

The type of exercise, the amount of time spent exercising and the intensity of exercise are very important aspects to consider. For example, typically, vigorous activity for six minutes or greater in cold, dry air is more likely to induce asthma.

There are numerous benefits specific to exercise for those with asthma. These include:

  • Increased aerobic fitness
  • Increased VO2max: at a given exercise intensity effort is reduced
  • Reduced symptoms of Asthma
  • Decreased risk of Exercise-Induced Asthma
  • Lower dosage of medication required
  • Reduced frequency of use of relievers
  • Increased exercise tolerance
  • Improved ability to carry out activities of daily living without shortness of breath
  • Improved breathing

Starting an Exercise Program and preventing Exercise-Induced Asthma

Here are a few quick tips to help you ensure that starting an exercise routine does not lead to an asthma attack!

  • Make sure that you warm up for at least 10 minutes
  • Gradually increase the intensity of your exercise sessions when you feel comfortable
  • Avoid unfavourable environmental conditions where possible
  • Exercise during warmer periods of day – particularly during the colder months
  • Carry a reliever
  • Choose an activity that you enjoy and aim for at least 30 minutes of moderately intense physical activity every day or most days of the week.
  • Try to be as fit as possible – increasing your level of fitness raises the threshold for exercise-induced asthma, so that moderate intensity exercise may not cause an attack
  • Breathe through the nose to help warm and humidify the air
  • After strenuous exercise, complete cooling down exercises, breathing through the nose and covering the mouth in cold, dry weather

How to treat a flare up of Exercise-Induced Asthma

  • Stop what you are doing
  • Follow your asthma action plan. If you don’t have an action plan, take 4 separate puffs of a blue/grey reliever.
  • Only return to your exercise or physical activity if your breathing returns to normal
  • If the symptoms do not go away, or if they return whilst you are exercising again, use your reliever as before. Don’t do any more exercise that day.

Simple breathing exercises to help with Asthma

Research has shown that asthmatics tend to breathe faster than people with normal lungs, and may also have a tendency to breathe out through their mouth more. This exposes the lungs to a cooler and drier air environment which can be an asthma trigger. So it would only make sense that a few breathing exercises that encourage shallow breathing at a controlled rate may actually reduce asthma symptoms. Below are a few breathing exercises that you can utilise to help manage your breathing.

Diaphragmatic breathing

This is a basic and simple breathing technique that maximizes air distribution in the lungs. You can lie down or sit to perform this exercise. During this exercise, it is integral to concentrate on your breathing. Preferably you should breathe in slowly through your nose. When you inhale your abdomen should go out (not your chest). Exhale slowly with your abdomen going inward. Ideally, exhalation should be twice as long as inhalation.

Pursed lip breathing

A great technique used to relieve shortness of breath! To practice it, breathe in slowly through your nose with your mouth closed. Then, purse your lips as if you were about to whistle. Finally, breathe out through your pursed lips to a count of four.

Nasal breathing

To do this, firstly sit upright in a chair with your feet flat on the floor. Relax your shoulders and control your breathing. Using your right thumb, close your right nostril and breathe in gently through your left nostril. Close your left nostril with your index finger and release your thumb from your right nostril. Breathe out gently through your right nostril. Inhale through your right nostril. Close your right nostril and release your finger from your left nostril, breathe out through your left nostril. Repeat this sequence. One advantage of breathing through your nose is that it adds warmth and humidity to the air, which can help reduce asthma symptoms.

Finally, the Specialist to Help you is….

If you are asthmatic and would like some help in reducing your symptoms, then come to visit our Accredited Exercise Physiologists at Exact Physiology. They will be able to educate you on correct breathing and the benefits that exercise can have in reduce asthmatic symptoms. From an initial consultation, they will be able to tailor an individualized program to help you further manage your asthma.

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