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Last updated: Oct 08, 2021
5 min read

Exercising for asthma: best exercises, techniques, and safety

steve silvestro

Medically Reviewed by Steve Silvestro, MD

Written by Ashley Braun, RD, MPH

Disclaimer

If you have any medical questions or concerns, please talk to your healthcare provider. The articles on Health Guide are underpinned by peer-reviewed research and information drawn from medical societies and governmental agencies. However, they are not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.

If you have asthma, especially the type aggravated by exercise, you may think you need to avoid exercising altogether. But that’s not the case. Research suggests exercise may help you control asthma symptoms (Lang, 2019). 

Exercise can help your lungs function better over time (Lang, 2019). You may just need to be more careful about the types of exercises you do and the environment you work out in when you have asthma.

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Exercise and asthma

One of the main goals of your asthma treatment plan will be helping you maintain a normal healthy lifestyle, which includes physical activity. 

This is also important for childhood asthma, so kids can continue to play and participate in sports if they want to.

Common symptoms of asthma include:

  • Shortness of breath 
  • Wheezing
  • Chest tightness or discomfort
  • Trouble breathing

Exercise-induced asthma, also called exercise-induced bronchoconstriction (EIB), is a type of asthma where symptoms are triggered by physical activity. Some types of exercises may be more likely to trigger asthma symptoms. 

Aerobic exercise, also called cardio, challenges your heart and lungs to work harder, increasing your heart rate and breathing. Because of this, intense cardio workouts, especially when moving for more extended periods, may be more challenging for some people with asthma. A few examples of aerobic exercise include running, dancing, bicycling, and swimming.

Best exercises for asthma

When choosing the best exercises for asthma, you’ll want to consider the different factors affecting your asthma. The triggers that cause symptoms will vary for each person with asthma, and your triggers can change over time. 

Here are some of the common asthma triggers that may impact exercise choices (Lang, 2019):

  • Dust mites
  • Cold air
  • Dry air
  • Pollen
  • Air pollution
  • Respiratory infections

So, if you’re planning to exercise outside, you’ll want to consider the temperature, pollen counts, and other possible air pollution. If you’re exercising indoors, you may experience dust mites, drier air (especially if the heaters are on), and other types of air pollution. Thinking about finding a safe, clean environment can improve the chances of exercising without trouble.

Types of exercise

After considering the common triggers for symptoms, it’s time to decide what types of exercise you want to try. Keep in mind you may want to try multiple types of exercise to see how you respond. And if you’re experiencing asthma symptoms, it’s okay to do lower intensity workouts while you recover.

Here are some examples of exercises that may be better for someone with asthma:

  • Walking
  • Biking
  • Hiking (depending on how you respond to the weather, altitude, and pollen)
  • Swimming (the air is usually warmer and has higher humidity, especially at indoor pools)
  • Weight lifting and strength training
  • Sports with shorter bursts of movement, such as baseball, softball, volleyball, gymnastics, and short distance track and field

Endurance and cold weather sports may be more challenging for people with asthma (but people with asthma still do participate in them!). Sports like soccer, basketball, ice hockey, cross country skiing, ice skating, and cross country running may be more triggering for asthma. 

If you want to participate in these sports, build up your endurance slowly and talk with your healthcare provider to develop an asthma action plan in case symptoms develop.

Breathing techniques

How you breathe while exercising can impact how out of breath you feel. Breathing exercises may help open the airways, move fresh air into the lungs, and decrease the amount of effort it takes to breathe (Santino, 2020). 

A 2020 meta-analysis found that breathing exercises helped reduce symptoms while increasing quality of life and lung capacity (Santino, 2020).

Here are the breathing exercises included in the study:

  • Diaphragmatic breathing: This involves fully engaging the diaphragm (the muscle below the ribs), abdominal muscles, and belly while breathing.
  • Buteyko method: This involves using nasal breathing, breath control, and breath-holding exercises.
  • Papworth method: This combines diaphragmatic breathing, nose breathing, and breathing patterns to control the breath.

Tips for exercising with asthma

Here are some tips to help with exercising for people with asthma:

  • Complete warm-up and cool-down exercises to help your body prepare for and slow down after physical activity.
  • Use a quick-relief inhaler before exercise. Rescue inhalers (like albuterol) help relax the walls of your airways. Sometimes inhalers are recommended before exercise as a preventive step to control asthma symptoms. 
  • Consider long-term control medications. If your symptoms are poorly controlled with short-term relief asthma medicines, talk to your healthcare provider about other options. This may include oral medications or corticosteroid inhalers. 
  • Avoid allergens and irritants. Pay attention to pollen counts, weather, and other possible triggers when planning your workouts. 
  • Consider adding an air filter or humidifier if exercising at home.

Benefits of exercise for asthma

Many research studies support the health benefits of exercise, and these benefits remain true for people with asthma. Even though you may need to adjust how you exercise and the types of exercise you do, you shouldn’t avoid working out even if you have exercise-induced asthma.

Physical activity helps boost energy levels, reduce the risk of other chronic diseases, and improve mental health (Ruegsegger, 2018).

Regular exercise could help asthma control by (Jaakkola, 2019):

  • Increasing lung capacity
  • Improving breath control
  • Increasing breath flow
  • Increasing stamina and endurance
  • Lowering the frequency of asthma symptoms

Exercise safety considerations with asthma

Talk with your healthcare provider before starting any new types of exercise or workout programs. They will help you develop a safety plan in case you experience flare-ups or an asthma attack. 

Start slow with shorter and less intense exercises. It’s better to take your time to build up your stamina instead of pushing too hard and possibly triggering symptoms. For example, if you want to start jogging, you could start by increasing walks first or alternating jogging intervals with walking. 

Limit exercising outdoors when the pollen counts are high or in cold weather. Wear a face covering or scarf over your mouth and nose in cold weather. This may help keep the air you breathe warmer and more humid.The main goal of asthma management is to help you participate in all the activities you want to do without experiencing symptoms. Asthma doesn’t have to hold you back from exercising. With the right types of activities and safety measures, you can still stay active with asthma.

References

  1. Jaakkola, J., Aalto, S., Hernberg, S., Kiihamäki, S. P., & Jaakkola, M. S. (2019). Regular exercise improves asthma control in adults: a randomized controlled trial. Scientific Reports, 9(1), 12088. doi: 10.1038/s41598-019-48484-8. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6700123/ 
  2. Lang, J. E. (2019). The impact of exercise on asthma. Current Opinion In Allergy And Clinical Immunology, 19(2), 118–125. doi: 10.1097/ACI.0000000000000510. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30601152/ 
  3. Ruegsegger, G. N. & Booth, F. W. (2018). Health benefits of exercise. Cold Spring Harbor Perspectives In Medicine, 8(7), a029694. doi: 10.1101/cshperspect.a029694. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6027933/
  4. Santino, T. A., Chaves, G. S., Freitas, D. A., Fregonezi, G. A., & Mendonça, K. M. (2020). Breathing exercises for adults with asthma. The Cochrane Database Of Systematic Reviews, 3(3), CD001277. doi: 10.1002/14651858.CD001277.pub4. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7096190/