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I can’t breathe and you want me to run?!?!?! Understanding Exercise-Induced Asthma

  • 10/17/2011 4:43:00 PM
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I can’t breathe and you want me to run?!?!?! Understanding Exercise-Induced Asthma

David Ferguson, Ph.D, RCEP  

One of the best parts of my job is that every day is different. I recall one day in particular when I received a phone call from a woman interested in coming into the lab to have a fitness assessment done.   The interesting part was that she said she did not want to do a VOmax test (treadmill test to measure aerobic fitness). I found this very odd because the majority of the population does not know what a VO2max test is, let alone have such a strong opinion against it. When I asked why she did not want to do the test she replied with, “I have exercise-induced asthma and should avoid all forms of running.” I was shocked to hear this since this is not the case. Therefore, this article will address what exercise-induced asthma is, how to prevent it, and how to exercise with exercise-induced asthma.

Asthma is characterized by symptoms of wheezing, shortness of breath, coughing, and tightness in the chest. There is not a clear understanding of what causes asthma but temperature, humidity, allergies or exercise can cause the airways to become obstructed temporarily.   Treatment of asthma is well understood, and there are a variety of medications available. If you suffer from asthma, you should see a physician who can prescribe a variety of medications to help manage your symptoms.

Individuals who suffer from exercise-induced asthma typically have symptoms ten to fifteen minutes following moderate to intense exercise. It is because of this characteristic that many people think they should avoid exercise. What they don’t realize is that exercise will actually help their asthma symptoms.

One of the key aspects to exercising with asthma is to understand some of the triggers. Cold humid temperatures can causes episodes of exercise-induced asthma. Therefore, on colder days it is important to exercise inside. In addition to understanding the environmental triggers associated with exercise-induced asthma, incorporating a warm up and cool down into your workout is very important in preventing an episode of exercise-induced asthma. Before you begin a bout of aerobic exercise you should walk at a pace at which you could still carry on a conversation with someone. This warm up should last for 5 to 7 minutes. Then following your exercise session, you should walk at that same pace again for 8 to 10 minutes, which is called the cool down. This will decrease the occurrence of exercise-induced asthma following exercise. 

Research has shown that 30 minutes of moderate to intense exercise three days a week can drastically improve symptoms of exercise-induced asthma.   Not only will this improve symptoms of exercise-induced asthma but it will promote cardiovascular health and improve an individual’s quality of life.

Therefore, the incorporation of aerobic exercise following the guidelines of warm up/cool down along with not exercising in cold humid environments will result in a decrease in exercise-induced asthma symptoms. 

Further Reading
  1. Durstine, Larry J. ACSM’s Exercise management for Persons with Chronic Disease and Disabilities. 3rd edition. “Chapter 19: Asthma”, Human Kinetics, Champaign, IL, 2009.
  2. ACSM's Guidelines For Exercise Testing and Prescription 7th Edition. Lippincott Williams & Wilkins; 2006.




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