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Exercising with asthma

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There is no cure for asthma. However, the good news is that understanding and managing the condition can help ensure that you can live like any other normal person, and even incorporate regular exercises into your lifestyle.

Indeed, contrary to what some may believe, people with asthma can exercise. In fact, exercising is encouraged due to the health benefits that it can bring.

car free sunday People with asthma are encouraged to exercise due to the health benefits that it can bring. Photo: Sport Singapore

“The general idea that exercise is bad for people with asthma is because of wheezing, coughing, and breathing difficulties associated with it. Asthma is caused by many types of allergens and triggers, with exercise being one. But if you know how to manage these, exercise is good,” explained Frankie Tan, Head of Sport Science & Medicine Centre and Principal Sport Physiologist at the Singapore Sport Institute.

He continued: “Exercise strengthens the entire cardio-respiratory system; the lungs get healthier, [and] the breathing muscles get stronger. This will help them enhance their day-to-day function, and it reduces the likelihood of an attack.”

When a person with asthma comes into contact with allergens or triggers, their airways will contract. This might be caused either by the tightening of muscles surrounding the airways, or the swelling of bronchial tubes. Phlegm might accumulate and narrow the airways even more. Symptoms like coughing, wheezing, and breathing difficulties will then manifest.

One of these triggers, Tan highlighted, was actually exercise itself: “Intense and continuous exercise requires a high breathing frequency. Doing so for a long period of time causes the airways to become dry.”

Dry airways get irritated easily, leading to swelling. Cold and dry weather, too, exacerbates the situation, though climatic conditions in warm and humid Singapore hardly pose an issue. According to Tan, other triggers such as dust, pollen, and pollution may even be worse.

However, as long as the condition is managed well, and necessary precautions are taken, one can get around such an obstacle and still reap the benefits of exercise.

Exercise Time Photo: Sport Singapore


“They can start with intermittent exercises, so that they won’t be huffing and puffing for too long. When you’re resting, you’ll go back to a state where you’re not breathing so quickly and deeply,” he shared.

Examples included tennis, basketball, and football, which comprise multiple starts and stops, as compared to a 30-minute run or one-hour bicycle ride. Swimming, typically done in a moist atmosphere, could be considered an ideal sport too.

car free sundaySwimming, typically done in a moist atmosphere, is considered an ideal sport for people suffering from asthma. Photo: Sport Singapore

“If you’re getting into a continuous bout of exercise, some people recommend warming up intermittently as a management technique. If you start with continuous exercise straightaway, it’s an immediate trigger because you dry up the airways quickly. Once you do a start-stop, you ease yourself into it,” he continued, adding that breathing through one’s nose also helps moisten the air that enters the airways.

While Tan believed that “pretty much all kinds of activities” could be considered suitable for people with asthma who were looking to start exercising, he recommended avoiding endurance sport, especially in cold climates.

“One way of triggering an asthma attack would be doing endurance exercises in a very cold climate, such as cross-country skiing. It’s intense, it’s continuous, [and] the air is dry. In fact, a high percentage of cross-country skiers are diagnosed with asthma, due to many years of training,” Tan shared.

“But it’s okay. Many athletes who have asthma are able to manage their condition. Usually, they have medication on hand. Those with more serious conditions might use a bronchodilator 10 to 15 minutes before they begin exercising to relieve their airways, as a preventive measure,” he said.

Placing a scarf, mask, or moist towel over the nose and mouth would also potentially minimise the risks of drying up one’s airways.

Ultimately, Tan advises doing a bit of trial and error before starting out. With the right precautions taken, exercising is as beneficial a habit for a person with asthma as it is for any other.

stretchWith the right precautions taken, exercising is as beneficial a habit for a person with asthma as it is for any other. Photo: Sport Singapore

Tan concluded: “People with asthma who are starting out on physical activities should always have their medication on hand. If you’re a bit more conservative, you might use a preventer before the exercise. Then of course, if anything happens, you must slow down or stop, and use a reliever.”

“The important thing is for people to understand that what the main causes of these [asthma attacks] are, and see that you can get around them,” he said.

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