Many get confused when discussing the bond between exercise and asthma, as it seems paradoxical in nature. If asthma is a lung disease that essentially debilitates our ability to breathe, then wouldn’t exercise seemingly be out of the question? Quite the contrary! Asthma can impede our ability to exercise no doubt, but implementing various forms of exercise into a patient’s weekly life is a critical component in controlling and actually improving the way our body copes with the disease. Let me start by saying, I am no doctor and would never intend to give medical advice beyond my knowledge. I’m simply a guy who’s battled asthma for the better part of 24 years and picked up a few methods along the way to stave off the dreaded “wheeziness” us asthmatics know so well. In the blog this week, I’m going to give 5 quick tips to exercising with Asthma.
1. Pre-Flight Checklist
Before doing any physical activity, I do sort of a pre run checklist, first scanning my body briefly to make sure I’m not even slightly searching for breath. I then go outside and do a brisk jog around the block and back. This is simply to see what happens when my heart rate goes up and usually if I’m going to have asthma, I’ll feel some wheezing going on in that brief jog. The real trick is to just be aware. I then, make sure to note the air quality. Generally, this is relatively consistent if your doing the exercise in the same locations each time. But, sometimes (like in California) extenuating circumstances provide unfit conditions to even be outside. We saw this last November/December with the wildfires going on. I literally spent almost 5 days indoors because it caused so much inflammation in my lungs.
2. Know Your Triggers, Scan Your Surroundings
Knowing your triggers is crucial. Know them well. The ability to predict your environments tendencies and how your body will react to those conditions makes you an outlier. Prediction is how anyone gains confidence in anything. The ability to predict with certainty makes you that much better. For an easy example, my trigger is pollen. I’m generally most affected by pollen during the spring months and this is because all the plants, vegetation, greenery is blooming. And because it affects my airways in such a poor way, I literally have to avoid pollen (try that, and try to have fun). Pollen and fun don’t go together. Wind can also play a big role in affecting asthma symptoms. Oftentimes pollen, dust allergens, etc can get blown miles away from where it originated, causing big problems for those triggered by allergens. Finally, know the route you will be taking or the gym location you will be working out at. Sometimes there are neighboring businesses that emit a high amount of unpleasant air molecules or potentially smog laden areas that are just too risky to chance. Whatever your trigger is, become knowledgeable about that trigger like where it shows up most, or maybe in a certain season. The more knowledge you gather, the better prepared you will be.
3. Rescue Inhaler Priming
This is definitely when I would caution you before trying any of this, to consult your doctor or a medical professional before taking my word. Now to the point - sometimes it is necessary for me to take a puff of my rescue inhaler before going on a run, doing a workout in a new city, or even getting in my racecar. If you have any indication that you might have even the slightest of symptoms, it is best to be preventative and take a puff of your rescue inhaler before it becomes a problem. If your symptoms are anything more than slight, take a break, regain your breath, and see how your body recovers. I know right away to call it quits when I actually start to experience fatigue in by collarbone area from trying to breathe too hard. Everyone is different though and the most important thing is that you are aware of the signs your body is giving you. Sometimes, it is even a good idea to take the rescue inhaler beforehand, even if you think there is no chance you would have any symptoms. Keep in mind, this method is preventative and the goal is to be able to have an active lifestyle with asthma. If that means your taking a puff of your rescue before going on a brisk walk, that’s totally ok. Take note of how well that walk went and reevaluate next time if the puff is necessary. And by all means, BRING YOUR RESCUE INHALER WITH YOU. There’s nothing worse than the thought of forgetting your inhaler and it’s 3 miles from where you just came from. Pocket it, stuff it in your sock. Do whatever it is you need to do to have that rescue inhaler with you.
4. Observe Your Breathing
During your workout or exercise regiment, bring the awareness every now and then back to your body. I know that a lot of people like to tune out and distract the mind to forget how unbearable something like running can be. But even if it’s just for 20 seconds, take a moment and feel how your airways are doing and if you’re fighting something. Catching an exacerbation early is key. Especially in a running scenario, knowing the difference between fatigue and asthma can be such a fine line at times. You know your body the best, so ultimately this is for you to know and understand. A good way to delineate, is to recognize the way you’re breathing right now as you read this. Notice how easy it is (hopefully) and how unimpeded each breath is. Next time you run and your breathing is clear, take note of that feeling too. The fatigue of the airways during heavy exertion, although difficult to catch your breath, isn’t necessarily the same feeling one gets when having the classic asthmatic wheezing symptoms. And finally, take note of a time when it was hard to breathe because of asthma. These highlighted examples will now serve as a benchmark you can reference for your lung quality at any given point in time that you’re aware of your breathing. And from then on, you will know the feeling between the two. Or you at least know if something isn’t right.
5. Methods of Breathing
I’ve been fortunate enough to meet some pretty awesome people along the way and one of those people is Wim Hof. Wim is extraordinary. He’s set 26 Guinness World records and has climbed Mt. Everest in only his shorts. He ran a marathon in the Sahara Desert with no water. The guy is a legend, but not a superhero. He attributes all of his achievements to a form of holotropic breathing combined with cold water immersion training. He became popular around 2016, so many of his latest work is still being tested. The mastery is his ability to oxygenate his body, giving him the ability to hold his breath for 10 mins plus. Please nobody try this at home without medical advice, but I would encourage you to watch a youtube video and see how the breath cycles work. I found this amazing because of the application this can have to someone like me, again though, as a preventative. I thought, instead of getting in a situation where it was hard to breathe and running out of time, what if you could oxygenate your body to the point where you only need breathing to maintain. I’ve tested this method many times and it really is awesome. With running, it increases your running time before oxygen depletion, thus giving asthma patients a bigger window for reaction in case symptoms did start to show up. In other words, you can do the heavy lifting of breathing in oxygen when your body is not stressed, to better utilize when your body does need it under stress. Another method I’ve come across, though small, there's been recent studies going out about nose breathing and the impact that can have on a person’s airways. It might seem a bit far fetched, but the nose actually acts as the filter to our airways and so often times our nose ends up sifting out the potentially asthma triggering pollutants that were headed right into our body. Patrick Mckeown goes into this in better detail in his book “The Oxygen Advantage”, which highlights the Buteyko method of breathing and the importance of practicing breath holding and avoiding mouth-breathing.
This post was originally published on the American Lung Association’s EACH Breath blog