Asthma and Exercise


Can people with asthma exercise?

About one in 10 people have asthma-related symptoms with physical activity. These symptoms may include coughing or shortness of breath. Symptoms may begin during or shortly after physical activity. Many people don’t recognize the problem is asthma and avoid exercise.

There are benefits to exercise for people with asthma:

  • Improved lung function – can build stamina
  • Strengthen muscles – good for all parts of your body, promote blood flow to lungs and heart
  • Weight loss – reduces the risk of asthma flares
  • Improved immune system function – reduces the risk of getting respiratory infections
  • Improved sense of well-being and quality of life
  • Stress reduction

What is exercise-induced asthma (EIA)?

Exercise-induced bronchospasm (EIB) is sometimes also called exercise-induced asthma, or EIA. With EIB, airway muscle spasms constrict air flow. This may cause shortness of breath, coughing, wheezing, chest tightness and fatigue. These symptoms usually appear 5-10 minutes after exercise starts or ends.

If you think you have EIB, make an appointment with a doctor. Your doctor will take your medical history and have you perform a breathing test. These breathing tests are performed after exercise and while resting.

What causes exercise-induced asthma?

People with EIB have airways that are very sensitive to sudden temperature changes. This is especially true when breathing cold, dry air. Nasal passages act as a mini-sauna for the air we breathe – warming the air and adding moisture. Additionally, the nasal passages help to filter out unwanted particles.

Most people breathe through their mouths when they exercise. This allows cold, dry air (plus allergens and other irritants) to reach the lower airways. Mouth breathing is also common among patients with stuffy noses. Stuffy noses may occur from colds, sinusitis and allergic rhinitis.

High pollen counts and outdoor air pollution may also contribute to asthma symptoms.

Photo of man and woman jogging in a park

Can you exercise when you have asthma?

Exercise-induced asthma should not hold you back from exercise or participating in sports. However, it is important that your EIB is well-managed. You may need to make some lifestyle changes to manage your EIB. This may include avoiding environmental triggers and taking medications.

  • Warm up and cool down: EIB sometimes occurs due to sudden temperature changes in the airways. So, doctors recommend 15-20 minutes of steady warm-ups before exercise. Then a 15-20 minute cool-down period after exercise, is also recommended.
  • Medications: Doctors prescribe quick-relief albuterol inhalers for EIA. These inhalers open up and relax muscles in the airways and prevent bronchospasm. Before any moderate or vigorous physical activity, doctors recommend pre-treating your airways. You may need to use your quick-relief albuterol inhaler 10-20 minutes before exercise. This is important even if your symptoms are well controlled. You should also use your albuterol inhaler if symptoms occur during exercise.
  • Stay hydrated: Keep a water bottle with you when exercising. Be sure to drink water BEFORE you become dehydrated.
  • Check your environment: Do small amounts of exercise when asthma triggers are present. When it is cold, pollen counts are high, or the air quality is unhealthy, you may want to avoid strenuous exercise. Schedule your outdoor exercise during times when pollen counts are low. In cold weather, wear a scarf over your mouth to warm the air you breathe and protect from air pollution.

Some activities are better than others for people with exercise-induced asthma. Swimming is often a good choice because it’s done in a warm, humid environment. Also, the horizontal position may help move mucus from the bottom of your lungs. But if you are sensitive to chlorine, you may want to try another activity. Sports with short bursts of activity such as baseball or golf may be ideal. You may also try yoga, walking, leisure biking or hiking. These forms of exercise may be easier to pace than other types of activity.

Are there other conditions that may look like asthma or complicate asthma?

There are other types of respiratory conditions that are different than asthma.  The symptoms, diagnosis and treatment can vary depending upon the condition. Here are some of them.