Training the lungs for asthma-free exercise

Asthma is a chronic disorder of the lungs and airways, characterised by wheezing, coughing, shortness of breath, and tightness in the chest. These symptoms are caused by increased sensitivity of the airway to stimuli or ‘triggers’. Common triggers include allergens (dust, pollen), chest infections, emotional factors (stress, heavy laughter), smoke (cigarette or fire), and perhaps most relevant to this time of year, cold/dry air and exercise. The severity of the condition can range from mild, occasional symptoms, to constant and severe. In most cases, the symptoms resolve quickly, either on their own or with the use of inhaled medication.

Australia has the third highest rate of asthma in the world, with about 11 per cent of the population suffering from the condition. In roughly 90 per cent of those with the condition, exercise is considered a trigger.

Management of Asthma usually includes use of inhaled medicine (the ‘puffer’ we all know) which can be either relieving or preventative; developing an Asthma Action Plan with your GP, which details what to do if you have an attack; and by avoiding most of your triggers – EXCEPT for exercise. If you are unsure of whether you have asthma, or you have shortness of breath, chest tightness, or a dry/persistent cough that remains after a period of rest, consult your GP. Other risk factors for asthma include smoking, allergies, or childhood asthma.

Cardio-based exercise is known to improve lung function as well as muscle endurance – think training for a marathon, or football pre-season. This is why cardio is the one asthma trigger not to avoid – by training the lungs, the point at which an asthma attack begins is set back, allowing asthma free exercise.

As the border starts to get into winter sport – football, netball, soccer etc – and the weather gets colder, it is not uncommon to feel increased asthma symptoms at training or on game day. Cold, dry air is a strong irritant of the airway. The key to managing cold induced asthma is controlling both your asthma, and the air you breathe. Take your reliever medication 10-15 minutes before exposure to the cold, and carry it with you so you can stay on top of symptoms as they appear. Another strategy is to breathe through the nose, as this warms and moistens air as it is inhaled. Wearing a scarf is another way to warm and moisten the air before it hits your airway. If the weather is extreme (e.g. snowing), the best option may be to consider rugging up, or modifying your activity.

 If you think exercise induced asthma will limit your performance, ask David Beckham or Tex Walker – it hasn’t stopped them.