Blog post: Q&A with Dr John Dickinson

"Asthma should not be a limitation to the level of exercise that you do."

Dr John Dickinson is researching ways to avoid asthma symptoms when exercising, at the University of Kent. He has lead the respiratory testing of Britain’s elite athletes since 2003. And, thanks to your donations, he’s recently been awarded an Asthma UK Innovation Grant.

We spoke to him to find out how his research could benefit people with asthma.

What made you want to research asthma and exercise?

My wife had asthma when I met her back at university. She was always complaining about getting out of breath when she exercised. I worked with her and anecdotally the fitter she was the better her asthma control became.

I got more and more interested in the subject, then the opportunity came up to work at the British Olympic association with athletes that required inhalers at the Olympic games.

John Dickinson

How will your research help people with asthma?

This particular project is looking at how we can help people with asthma to increase the amount of exercise they can do outside in winter and autumn. We know that cold dry air is a big trigger for asthma. Often the advice to treat asthma is to avoid your triggers – this might mean lots of people with asthma will be put off exercising in cold and dry air.

We want to see if we can do something that allows people with asthma to continue to exercise outside without any increase in symptoms. So, we’re investigating if we can use a face mask that can warm and humidify air before we breathe it in.

How does the exercise mask work?

The face mask will work as a ‘heat moisture exchanger’. The mask comes across your mouth so that you breathe into it and it captures the moisture and maintains the heat of the air. So, when you breathe back in, that heat and moisture gets caught back in the breath coming in. It basically recycles the moisture you breathe out.

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Is there evidence that exercise is a trigger for asthma and how common is it?

Exercise is one of the most common triggers of asthma symptoms such as coughing and shortness of breath. Exercise is usually where the symptoms first present themselves and when you start treatment, exercise symptoms are often the last to settle. We estimate between 80-90 % of people with asthma have exercise induced asthma. However, exercise may also be the only time people only experience asthma symptoms.

Exercise is a great tool to judge the control of someone’s asthma, which is why the findings of the research project are so important.

How can exercising help people with asthma?

We know exercise helps your lungs to work better and will help the severity of the condition. As you get fitter your breathing control gets better, so you'll hopefully feel you get less symptoms in your daily life. 

It is never too late to start exercising and in fact as soon as you start you will start feeling the benefits.

What inspires you most about your work?

Some of the best stories came out of when I worked with young athletes who were struggling with their breathing. I think sometimes the medical advice they’d received had been a bit discouraging – telling them not to exercise.

What I was able to do was quantify how bad their asthma was, get them on the right inhalers and talk to them about how they can use breathing control exercises to help them overcome symptoms. They then kicked on and won gold medals at the Olympic games!

Do you have a message for supporters who help fund your research?

We’re forever grateful for the generosity of all the supporters who provide the funding and all the people that do crazy challenges!

Ultimately their support informs treatment and will allow people with asthma to improve their lifestyle and symptoms.

Support researchers like Dr John Dickinson to improve the lives of people with asthma