Dr. John Dickinson has been leading the respiratory testing of Britain’s elite athletes since 2003 and has recently been awarded an Asthma UK Innovation Grant. Below he explains how he wants to help people with asthma increase the amount of exercise they can do.
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What attracted you to the field of asthma and exercise?
My wife had asthma when I met her back at university and 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.
Can you tell me about your research project, and how it will hopefully 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. What we know is 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. Hence investigating if we can use a face mask that can warm and humidify air before we breathe it in.
What does the project involve?
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.
Is there evidence that exercise is a trigger for asthma and how prevalent is it?
The exact prevalence of exercise induced asthma in people with asthma is not known, but exercise is one the most common triggers of asthma. Exercise is usually where the symptoms first present themselves and when you start treatment, exercise is where symptoms remain the largest.
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.
What would be your dream outcome?
My ideal outcome is for the face mask to demonstrate either reducing the presence of asthma or how bad the symptoms are – this will be done by measuring the lung function before and after the exercise.
What inspires you most about your work?
I have worked with young athletes who have been really struggling with their breathing and possibly some of the medical advice has initially been to discourage them.
I have been able to quantify how bad their asthma is, get them on the right inhalers and talk to them about how they can use breathing control exercise to help them overcome symptoms. They have then kicked on and won gold medals at 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.