Running with Asthma

Introduction

Studies indicate that exercise participation is low amongst those diagnosed with asthma, with many of those diagnosed citing their asthma as a major barrier to physical activity, fearing it will worsen their condition and contribute to further asthma attacks.1, 2 Despite this, the European Lung Foundation states that aerobic exercise is one of the most effective tools in the management of asthma and that it can help improve the quality of life for those diagnosed significantly.3 

To prove how possible exercise is with asthma, did you know many famous athletes have asthma? 

Paula Radcliffe, a former British long-distance runner, was diagnosed with asthma at the age of 14. Despite her diagnosis, Radcliffe has gone on to win the London and New York marathons three times each and competed in several Olympic games.

About Asthma

Asthma is one of the most common respiratory diseases, affecting over 300 million people worldwide.4 The condition most commonly develops during childhood but can develop at any age. Asthma develops when the tubes (bronchi) that carry oxygen in and out of our lungs become sensitive to certain triggers, such as cold air, pollen, exercise and smoke. When exposed to these triggers, the bronchi become inflamed, thus, restricting the airways and making breathing much more difficult. Below are some of the most common asthma symptoms.

  • Shortness of breath
  • Wheezing sound whilst breathing
  • Chest tightness
  • Regular coughing

Benefits of Running with Asthma

Like any part of the body, the more we train our respiratory system, the more effective and stronger it will become. This remains true for those with asthma, as going for a regular run can have a wide range of respiratory based benefits, many of which will aid in managing asthma, as well as improve overall physical health. 

Increased oxygen uptake - Research shows that regular aerobic exercise increases oxygen uptake in those with asthma, as it increases the amount of oxygen their body can take in and deliver to working muscles during physical activity.5

Decreased airway inflammation - A clear link has been established between exercise and a reduction in airway inflammation in those with asthma.6 Studies have established that regular moderate aerobic exercise reduces the number of inflammatory cytokines present in those with asthma, reducing airway inflammation and the risk of asthma attacks.7

Immune system support - According to Asthma + Lung UK, 80% of asthma sufferers identify colds and viruses as major triggers for them.8 Systematic reviews have indicated that moderate physical activity boosts our immune system, helping reduce the risk of developing colds and viruses, and thus reducing the risk of an asthma attack.9

Tips for Running with Asthma

Breathing Techniques

Practising different breathing techniques can prove extremely effective in response to certain asthma symptoms. Below are three effective breathing techniques you should practice in the event  of an asthma attack following the use of your rescue inhaler: 

  1. Pursed lip - Performed in the event of breathlessness. Pucker your lips (as you would before whistling) whilst sitting upright in a chair. Breath in through the nose for two counts, and out through the mouth for 4 counts. Continue this until normal breathing is resumed.
  2. Buteyko - Performed if breathing begins to become uncontrollably fast. Take in several short breaths before breathing out of your nose. Pinch your nose and hold your breath for 5 seconds before going on to breathe as you normally would for 10 seconds. Repeat this method until your breathing rate slows.
  3. Diaphragmatic - Helps expand the airways, allowing for an increased supply of oxygen to come into the lungs. Normally performed whilst laid down, place one hand on the chest and one stomach. Breathe in through your nose, and out for double the duration through puckered lips.

What is the best weather condition to run in?

Asthma + Lung UK states that both hot and cold air can trigger asthma attacks in those diagnosed with the condition.10 It is suggested to avoid extremes of both these temperatures, therefore, those with asthma should look to exercise in mild weather conditions. Of course in certain areas, training outdoors may not always be possible for those with asthma due to the weather. However don’t let this deter you, there are plenty of online tutorials for aerobic-based sessions you can do from the comfort of your own home, allowing you to get your exercise fix for the day without risking an asthma attack.

Preparing for a Run

There are many preemptive measures asthma patients can do to help ensure they remain safe whilst going for a run. Before going for your next run, try and consider the following:

  • Things to take - Ensure that you always take your rescue inhaler, a bottle of water, mobile phone and a medical card with you on every run.
  • Clothing - If you have to run in cold weather, ensure to take some form of a scarf with you to cover your mouth and nose, this will help limit the amount of asthma-inducing cold air you breathe in whilst running.
  • Route - Plan the route you’re going to run to avoid areas of high pollution and pollen count if possible. Also, ensure to inform a friend or family member of the route in which you intend to take if you run alone.

What does it feel like to run with asthma and when to contact your doctor?

For some individuals with asthma, running may feel as it does for everybody else. However, for those with exercise-induced asthma (exercise-induced bronchoconstriction), breathing in oxygen during your runs can feel much more difficult. 

If you have already been diagnosed with asthma and have been prescribed medication, but you continue to suffer asthma symptoms, you should return to your local GP for further testing. This may be a sign you have exercise-induced asthma. If you notice any of the following symptoms whilst out for a run, ensure to book an appointment with your local GP before partaking in any further physical activity:

  • Shortness of breath triggered by physical activity
  • Regular coughing during physical activity
  • Tight/strained chest while breathing
  • Heavy wheezing that does not pass 15 minutes after taking medication
  • Higher levels of fatigue after exercise

Conclusion

Whilst the prospect of running may appear daunting at first for those with asthma, it is safe to do so provided you have been cleared by a medical professional. Research highlights regular exercise has many asthma-specific benefits, as well as other general health-related benefits. If you do begin to suffer from any exercise-induced asthma symptoms, ensure you re-visit your local GP immediately. Your GP will be able to help you identify what is triggering those symptoms and potentially prescribe you medication, helping ensure you remain symptom-free during your future exercise sessions.

References:

  1. Children and Young People with Asthma: A Review’. BMC Family Practice, vol. 9, no. 1, June 2008, p. 40. BioMed Central, https://doi.org/10.1186/1471-2296-9-40
  2. Freeman, Anna T., et al. ‘Patient Perceived Barriers to Exercise and Their Clinical Associations in Difficult Asthma’. Asthma Research and Practice, vol. 6, no. 1, June 2020, p. 5. BioMed Central, https://doi.org/10.1186/s40733-020-00058-6
  3. Study highlights benefits of aerobic exercise among people with asthma [Internet]. European Lung Foundation. 2015 [cited 2022 Apr 21]. Available from: https://europeanlung.org/en/news-and-blog/study-highlights-benefits-of-aerobic-exercise-among-people-with-asthma/#:~:text=Researchers%20have%20found%20that%20aerobic
  4. ‘CKS Is Only Available in the UK’. NICE, https://www.nice.org.uk/cks-uk-only
  5. Jaakkola, Jouni J. K., et al. ‘Regular Exercise Improves Asthma Control in Adults: A Randomized Controlled Trial’. Scientific Reports, vol. 9, no. 1, Aug. 2019, p. 12088. www.nature.com, https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-019-48484-8
  6. Vieira, Rodolfo P., et al. ‘Aerobic Exercise Decreases Chronic Allergic Lung Inflammation and Airway Remodeling in Mice’. American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine, vol. 176, no. 9, Nov. 2007, pp. 871–77. atsjournals.org (Atypon), https://doi.org/10.1164/rccm.200610-1567OC
  7. França-Pinto, Andrezza, et al. ‘Aerobic Training Decreases Bronchial Hyperresponsiveness and Systemic Inflammation in Patients with Moderate or Severe Asthma: A Randomised Controlled Trial’. Thorax, vol. 70, no. 8, Aug. 2015, pp. 732–39. thorax.bmj.com, https://doi.org/10.1136/thoraxjnl-2014-206070
  8. ‘Getting Active When You Have Asthma’. Asthma + Lung UK, https://www.asthma.org.uk/advice/living-with-asthma/exercise-and-activities/
  9. Nieman, David C., and Laurel M. Wentz. ‘The Compelling Link between Physical Activity and the Body’s Defense System’. Journal of Sport and Health Science, vol. 8, no. 3, May 2019, pp. 201–17. PubMed Central, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jshs.2018.09.009
  10. ‘Weather as an Asthma Trigger’. Asthma + Lung UK, https://www.asthma.org.uk/advice/triggers/weather/

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George Evans

Bachelor of Science - BS, Sport and Exercise Science, University of Chester, England

George is a freelance writer with three years of writing experience and first class honours in Sport Science (BSc).

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