Breathe Easy

Medication management ideas, workout tips, and helpful safety advice designed to make living with asthma a little easier.

Don’t Let Asthma Stop You from Working Out

Expert advice to keep you active

older woman going up the stairs

Think exercise and asthma—a respiratory condition that causes shortness of breath, wheezing, and coughing—are on opposing teams? It’s time to dust off that outdated idea and get moving, the right way.

“It’s true that many, if not most, people with asthma experience some coughing or chest tightening when they exercise, but regular physical exercise is important for overall health,” says Albert A. Rizzo, M.D., a senior medical advisor to the American Lung Association and chief of pulmonary care at Christiana Care Health System in Delaware. In fact, research shows that a regular walking regimen may help improve symptoms and general fitness levels in adults with asthma.

The trick is to find exercises and activities that you enjoy, and take preventive steps to keep your asthma symptoms in check. Here’s the game plan:

Look for moderate-intensity activities. Most people with asthma do best participating in activities when their breathing rate and heart rate are less sustained, says Dr. Rizzo. Consider stop-and-start sports, like baseball, softball, golf, volleyball, or martial arts. Tennis and other racket sports are also good because of the frequent rest intervals. Yoga is another recommended activity, with a big bonus in that many poses involve breathing exercises and breath control.

Warm up properly. Taking at least 10 minutes to ease into a workout will give your airways a chance to prepare for what’s to come. Start with an easy-paced walk, jog, cycle, or swim. Continue that gentle pace for five minutes and gradually increase your speed over the course of the next five minutes. Before you start exercising, try some of the breathing exercises that your doctor recommends.

Take preventive measures. Before starting any new sport or activity, check in with your doctor and ask what specific steps he or she wants you take ahead of time. Dr. Rizzo recommends using a quick-relief inhaler 20 to 30 minutes prior to exercising to avoid asthma symptoms.

Know your triggers. Yes, exercising in and of itself can bring on asthma flare-ups, but you should also take into account other factors that have triggered an attack in the past. If excessive heat or pollen are your foes, explore indoor workouts, and time your outdoor workouts accordingly. Cold air an issue? Downhill skiing is going to be better than cross-country skiing, since you can take regular breaks. And if you enjoy swimming, remember that the pool chemicals can exacerbate symptoms. Outdoor pools and open water are generally better for those with asthma.

Have a just-in-case plan. If you start to experience a flare-up, Dr. Rizzo says to follow the protocol outlined by your doctor. Generally speaking, that means using your rescue medication and resting. Repeat the medication in 15 minutes, if necessary, and seek medical attention if symptoms aren’t getting better. “Take it easy for the next couple of days and you should be back to your baseline,” he says.