Gasping for air

When exercise-induced asthma takes the wind out of your sails, here's how to keep your workouts on course.

June 17, 2003
Gasping for air
I grew up with the belief that regular, vigorous exercise creates a healthy heart and strong lungs. But when I was about 25 years old, I started having trouble breathing. Here I was, and still am, a fit female who has been active all her life -- race-walking 6 miles a day, five days a week -- so why did I find it impossible to climb a couple of flights of stairs without gasping for air? I asked my doctor what could be causing my problem.

The answer? Asthma. As it turns out, I'm one of the 17 million Americans who suffer from asthma, a condition that leaves you short of breath (called dyspnea) and wheezing, with chest tightness and a cough that lasts more than a week. The laborious breathing I was experiencing was exercise-induced asthma (EIA), which the American Medical Association says can be a precursor to an asthma diagnosis. EIA is caused by loss of heat, water or both from the lungs when exercising in cold and dry weather. According to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, exercise will trigger the previously listed symptoms in up to 90% of asthma sufferers.

Could You Suffer From EIA?
EIA usually occurs during or minutes after vigorous exercise, with symptoms reaching their peak about 5-10 minutes after you finish an activity and dissipating after about 20-30 minutes. If you're experiencing shortness of breath, wheezing, chest tightness or a chronic cough, you should see your physician. He or she will examine you with a peak flow meter, a tube that you quickly exhale into that helps determine your lung capacity.

But Can You Still Train?
Of course you can! With direction from your doctor and some education, you can effectively manage your asthma and still make great gains in the gym. Just look at the athletes who participated in last summer's Olympic Games: Incredibly, up to 15% of them suffer from asthma, with most of them competing in endurance events like cycling, long-distance running or swimming. If these elite athletes can do it, so can you. Just follow our advice below.

Breathe Easier
Before you say goodbye to your cardio workouts or intense weight routines, try these tips to lessen the effects of asthma and keep your training on track.

Drink small amounts of fluids during exercise to help keep your airways hydrated. This helps to prevent the muscle from tightening and symptoms of an asthma attack from developing.

Breathe through your nose when exercising to warm the air before it enters your lungs. Covering your nose and mouth when exercising outdoors in the cold will also help warm the air before it enters your lungs.

Exercise daily to maintain strength and increase endurance. According to the American Medical Association, being aerobically fit reduces your risk of triggering EIA attacks. This is because you'll breathe easier during exercise and need less medication to control your symptoms.

Watch out for air pollution and allergens. Stay off busy streets and avoid exercising outdoors during rush hour. These steps will help keep you away from large amounts of car exhaust. On the same note, if you tend to suffer from allergies to pollen, don't take your run through a meadow full of blooming daisies. Pollen and other allergens can trigger an attack just as pollution can, so be aware of the pollen count and the air quality in your area. Exercise indoors when either is reported as high or unhealthful.

Take your medicine before you exercise. It will help reduce inflammation in your lungs and provide for easier breathing.

Enlist the help of your physician. Together you can discuss an exercise and nutrition program that can alleviate the symptoms of asthma. This partnership can help educate you more on this condition, and ensure proper management and treatment of asthma. Overall, this will ensure easy breathing for you now and into the future.

1. Guidelines for the Diagnosis and Management of Asthma. 1998. Online. JAMA Asthma Information Center. Internet. 20 Sept 2000. special/asthma/treatmnt/guide/guidelin/comp3/longterm/exercise.htm. 2. Helenius, I., Haahtela, T. Allergy and asthma in elite summer sport athletes. Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology 106 (3 Pt. 1):444-452, 2000. 3. American Medical Association. Essential guide to asthma. New York, NY: Pocket Books, 1998.