Cycling through Asthma

BikeNathan Houck rediscovered the joy of cycling at age 50 – but soon faced an old nemesis: “After a summer of bicycling nirvana, my childhood asthma rediscovered me.” A trip to the ER was a wake-up call, and he’s now struggling to find a balance between playing it safe and staying just as active as his bicycle-club friends.

“Despite advances in asthma treatment and prevention, asthma remains a socially isolating condition. This point was driven home for me this past year. I rediscovered bicycling at the ripe age of 50 and was having the time of my life. It didn’t hurt that while having a good time I was also losing a little weight. However, my expectation this activity would continue was short-lived.

After a summer of bicycling nirvana, my childhood asthma rediscovered me. At first the asthma events were infrequent, short in duration and didn’t impact my lifestyle. I dismissed the mild asthma episodes as random annoyances. Over the intervening winter, in anticipation of the upcoming cycling season, I joined the local bicycle club to up my game and meet other cyclists. My outlook on my health and a little social life outside of work and home was looking up!

Spring came early, and the first club rides of the year were cancelled due to inclement weather. Then, unexpectedly, the weather turned unusually warm, and after days of unseasonably high humidity, pollen and airborne particulate, I experienced a severe asthma exacerbation that sent me to the ER.


Nathan and his cycling buddy — his daughter, Hadley. Hadley has asthma, too.

Fear Rerun
To say I was scared was an understatement. Memories of trips to the ER as a child came flooding back. In fact, they overwhelmed me. The endless days watching the other kids play on the playground while I stayed grounded on the sidelines set me on edge. The fear that asthma in later life would recur has always plagued me and has been my only deep-rooted fear of growing older.

I now had to face that monkey front and center. My wife and daughter were as concerned as I was. As my physicians mechanically reached for the stock solutions they knew, I turned to the Internet. Sticking to sites that cited their sources and were backed by nationally recognized leaders in asthma research or advocacy, I learned that asthma prevention and maintenance therapy had advanced light years since my childhood. Website after website seemed to indicate that with proper maintenance I could enjoy the activities I chose to pursue. There was hope. I also realized that my physicians, although concerned, were not going to solve this without some assistance. When I inquired about an Asthma Action Plan (AAP), they looked at me like I had two heads.

Asthma Recluse
Then came the reality check: frequent trips to the ER and months of adjustments to my meds. I became an asthma recluse. I began to avoid activities for fear of an attack presenting itself and ruining the event for me or others. I began to seek “loner” activities again. I tried getting out of a camping trip with my daughter to avoid the possibility of having an attack in the woods. I avoided the club rides.

The gains made in weight control began to slip as my activity level dropped. No one wants to be the guy that everyone must slow down for, or worse, abort a ride for to see you get home safely. No wants to be a burden to others. I actually rode by my club ride one day without stopping because of just the thought I might have trouble breathing. This mindset sent me into a downward spiral mentally and physically.

When some people become aware that you have asthma, their reactions are sometimes unexpected and give pause. I’ve heard, “You just need to lose weight,” “Asthma isn’t real; it’s all in your mind,” “You need to eat organic,” “You have a sick house.” Hey, wait one minute! My doctor says I’m not fat, that I’m fit with a bit of a paunch. Hell, I’m 51 and entitled to a little gravity. You try breathing through a coffee stirrer at 40 breaths per minute and see if it’s “all in your head!” OK, the sick house may be a factor, as I have a dog and a cat, but I’m told I’m not allergic to either. We dust, pick up, and clean as much as the next family.

Reactions like these only compounded the avoidance strategy — avoidance becomes a way of life. No one wants to have their chronic condition ruin the party.

It’s easy to say, “Get over it and move on.” And, in reality that is exactly what one must do. Nevertheless, we all need a little help now and again to get out of the “Poor me” rut. Sites such as AANMA’s helped me get on track and make the best of a bad situation.

I also came to realize that there’s only so much one can do – one must reach a point when one feels the treatment is the best that can be offered, and residual limitations must be accepted. Little steps minimize the impact asthma has on one’s daily activities. Thankfully, after months of interventions, I’m finally on meds that have moved the bottom of the scale to something I can live with. When I’m at the bottom of the breathing scale, at least now I can function. I’m not on the bike as much as before, but I ride when I can. I’m also dealing with the social-recluse phenomenon by trying not to let that urge to stay at home, or keep to oneself, control my life.”

Starting an exercise program? Our expert team recommends:

  • Develop a written, personalized Asthma Action Plan with your healthcare provider.
  • Know what sets off symptoms; avoid or minimize exposure. Avoid exercising outside when air pollution’s high. Cover nose and mouth in cold weather. Allergic to pollen? Avoid high-pollen days; consider immunotherapy if symptoms slow you down.
  • Warm up 10 minutes before strenuous exercise. Cool down slowly.
  • Drink plenty of fluids.
  • Treat symptoms soon as they appear, following your Asthma Action Plan.
  • When symptoms interrupt exercise, consult your board-certified allergist.
  • Visit your healthcare provider for follow-up appointments, even when you feel well.
  • Share your Asthma Action Plan with family and exercise partners.
  • Healthy diet — Reduce inflammation with a diet rich in: antioxidants (fruits, vegetables, whole grains), omega-3 fatty acids (fish, flaxseed, nuts), calcium and magnesium (low-fat dairy, greens, whole grains). Limit high-salt foods; processed foods with artificial coloring and preservatives; high-trans-fat foods.

AAT exercise experts: Tera Crisalida, PA-C; Lisa Dorfman, MS, RD, CSSD; Michael Foggs, MD; Marc Rubin, RPh, AE-C.

First published in AANMA’s Allergy & Asthma Today magazine, Spring 2011.