Pollen, air pollutants, respiratory infections, even cold air can make exercising difficult for people with asthma and allergies. But don't let them stop you. Exercise is excellent medicine even if you have severe asthma or allergies — it strengthens the lungs and heart, improves circulation to all the tissues, including the brain, and cleans out waste products that build up from chronic respiratory problems. What's more, it helps overweight people lose a few pounds, which can open up the airways and further improve lung function.
The keys to exercising with asthma or allergies are preparation and awareness of yourself and your environment. The suggestions below are a good start, but they shouldn't take the place of a conversation with your physician about setting up a treatment program that will be effective during exercise.
Preparing for Exercise
Strategies for Exercise
Asthma and allergies need not hold you back from excelling in, or at least enjoying, any sport you choose. That said, some sports are better than others for people with asthma or allergies.
Swimming is a great choice for several reasons. The moist air over indoor pools is usually low in allergens. The body's horizontal position may help clear mucus from the bottom of the lungs. Walking, bicycling and yoga are also good options. Regularly and healthily conducted exercise may reduce the need for asthma medications.
Short bursts of intense activity, such as sprinting, are less problematic for people with asthma than continuously intense activities, such as marathon running. If you choose to run, an indoor track may help to reduce exposure to pollutants and other triggers.
Here are some tips for safe, healthy exercise:
Picking the Best Time To Exercise
Try to exercise when the air is as clean as possible. Avoid intense exercise when ozone levels are high. This is usually in the early afternoon, especially on hot, hazy summer days. Levels are usually lowest in the early morning and at dusk. If you have exercise-induced asthma, cold weather or warm, humid weather can trigger symptoms. Some people get symptoms if there's a lot of pollen in the air. Others develop symptoms if they have taken aspirin or some other nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug such as ibuprofen before exercising.
Keep track of daily allergy, ozone and pollutant levels in your area by checking the area weather report through one of the weather media sources such as the Internet or radio.
Some people cough, wheeze and get short of breath only when they exercise. This is exercise-induced asthma. It's often mistaken for being out of shape. Exercise-induced asthma commonly occurs with intense exercise or when exercising in cold air. Although the symptoms often appear right away, they can occur hours after you've stopped exercising.
Paulette Chandler, M.D., M.P.H., is a clinical instructor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and an attending physician at Brigham and Women's Hospital.