If your asthma is stopping you doing the activities you love, you’re not alone. Physical activity can be more challenging when you have asthma.
You might be worried that getting breathless means an asthma attack is on the way, or feel down and frustrated that asthma is stopping you getting fit.
It might help to know that getting your heart rate up can actually improve your asthma symptoms. Here’s how:
- Raising your heart rate regularly boosts your lung power, increasing stamina and reducing breathlessness
- It supports your immune system and helps fight colds and viruses – a major trigger for over 80% of people with asthma
- Activity helps you stay a healthy weight, in turn cutting your risk of an asthma attack
- It releases ‘feel-good’ chemicals in your brain – studies show that if you’re stressed, or depressed, you’re at higher risk of asthma symptoms
If you have severe asthma, please use this exercise advice.
“No matter how much, or for how long, even the smallest amount of exercise made me feel so much better mentally” – Asthma UK Readers Panel member
It’s natural to worry that exercising might set off your symptoms, especially if you’re recovering from a recent asthma attack.
Looking after your asthma is a vital first step to feeling more confident about getting active.
1) Take your preventer medicine as prescribed
Your preventer inhaler helps soothe the underlying inflammation in your lungs and cuts your risk of an asthma attack.
This means your airways will be less likely to react when you start breathing faster from exertion.
2) Ask your GP or asthma nurse to support you
They might offer to help you monitor and review your asthma more regularly while you get more active.
You could try asking to be referred to a respiratory physiotherapist who will teach you breathing techniques to help with your asthma, but unfortunately waiting lists are long.
The good news is that following a breathing technique programme has been proven to work as well as seeing a physio in some cases.
If you’re fighting fears about getting out of breath or having an asthma attack, there’s lots you can do.
- Exercise with a friend – give them a copy of your asthma action plan and talk them through what to do if symptoms come on
- Start slowly and build up, staying in your comfort zone. Remember, every little bit of movement counts, even if that’s just walking more briskly
- A course of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) may also could help – talk to your GP.
“It did take a long time to get over my anxieties and fear of constantly feeling tight-chested and unable to participate. Set yourself small achievable goals – perhaps meet with a friend for a walk then build up slowly.” – Asthma UK Readers Panel member
There are no ‘bad’ activities for people with asthma. And you don’t have to sign up for a marathon – taking a daily walk, playing more vigorously with your kids or grandchildren, or doing some gardening all count.
Even just sitting down a little less during your day has major health benefits.
People with asthma tell us they enjoy:
- Walking, especially with a walking group, because of the other benefits like being outside and meeting people
- Yoga and tai chi because they let you set the pace and relax, as well as helping with breathing control
- Some people with asthma say swimming really helps, but others report that the chlorine makes their symptoms flare up
- NHS programmes like Couch to 5K and Strength and Flex are free, can be done at home, and are designed for absolute beginners
- Walking netball or chair yoga are great for building up your confidence – there are lots of other modified sports you could try – search for inclusive sports groups in your area
“What has helped me is to learn exercise can be done in one minute blocks and incorporated into my daily life.” – Asthma UK Readers Panel member
It’s crucial you know what to do if your asthma gets worse while exercising.
- Coughing, wheezing, and breathlessness are all signs that you need to stop and take your reliever inhaler (usually blue). (It’s normal to breathe faster after exercise, but if you’re unusually breathless or your breathing isn’t calming down after you stop, it’s a sign you might be having an asthma attack.)
- Tell people you exercise with that you have asthma, and explain what to do if you have an asthma attack
- Get to know your good days and bad days, and your personal triggers like pollen, dust or heat. It’s OK to let yourself off and rest
- Cold weather can set off your symptoms, so wrap a scarf round your face and nose if you’re going outside, or consider sticking to indoor activities that day instead.
You can find detailed safety advice on our Exercise as a Trigger page.
“If I am really unwell, I don’t force myself to exercise. I have found from experience that this is not only unhelpful, but also slows down my recovery rate.” – Asthma UK Readers Panel member
There’s lots of evidence that it’s easier to stay active if it becomes a habit and slots easily into your life. Try these tips, all suggested by people with asthma:
- Step counters (e.g. Fitbit) help with motivation and tracking progress
- Set yourself a (reasonable) challenge – for example, Asthma UK's Step Challenge
- If you don’t feel up to much, bopping along to some music while you lie or sit down is a good way to raise your heartbeat, feel better and keep your active habit going
- Start small and build up – walk one bus stop more, swim one more length. It’s easy to get put off if you try to do too much
- celebrate your achievements – perhaps your breathing is easier, your asthma feels better, or you feel stronger and healthier. It’s easier to keep going if you really feel it’s doing you good
- Give yourself a fallback activity option, like using a YouTube yoga video at home, so you don’t lose the habit if the weather is bad, your schedule changes, or you just can’t face going out
- Join a support group, like this Facebook group for people with asthma who do Park Run
- We all hit a wall sometimes – the NHS has some simple tips for getting over exercise barriers.
“I’ve learnt to be kind to myself and my body. Some days it won’t do as well as others and that is ok, I don’t push myself if my triggers are high and instead I make a commitment to try again tomorrow.” – Asthma UK Readers Panel member
Video: Yoga teacher Julia explains how yoga is helpful for asthmaAfter losing her sister to asthma and being diagnosed herself, Julia White began practising yoga to help manage her symptoms.
Transcript for ‘Yoga teacher Julia explains how yoga is helpful for asthma’
0:00 I’m Julia White. I’m a yoga teacher and aromatherapist, and I specialise in teaching yoga to people with asthma.
0:06 When I was younger, growing up, my younger sister had asthma and it was managed,
0:11 but she used to get quite bad asthma attacks so either the doctor would be called out or she would be hospitalised.
0:17 And then, one day, she had an asthma attack. She was at home alone and she had to call the ambulance.
0:23 The ambulance came, they tried to revive her and they couldn’t so she died of an asthma attack at the age of seventeen.
0:28 At the age of thirty, I was then diagnosed with asthma myself.
0:33 Obviously, went to the doctor, got diagnosed, was given various inhalers, managed it that way,
0:39 but then realised I had to do something about it myself, as well as taking my medications.
0:46 And that’s when I decided to take a really hard look at my life and decided to train to become a yoga teacher.
0:54 The good thing about yoga is that anyone can do yoga. You know, yoga isn’t just an exercise.
0:59 The most important part for me is the breathing.
1:01 If you can connect with your breath, and move with your breath, then that’s essentially what yoga is.
1:09 And the other thing is the posture; because when we have asthma attacks, and you hunch and obviously,
1:16 if you are like this, it’s really hard to breathe properly because your chest and your diaphragm are really hunched over.
1:23 So, the other thing with yoga is the posture, so it helps open up the chest, which helps to open up the breathing.
1:30 So, if you’ve got asthma and you want to do yoga, then the first thing you need to do is, one, go to your GP and make sure your medications are up to date.
1:40 And then, the other thing you need to do is, wherever you do yoga, whether it’s at home or whether you’re going to a studio or class or whatever,
1:46 just make sure you have your blue reliever inhaler right next to you on your yoga mat.
1:50 And, lastly, you need to make sure that your written asthma action plan is up to date as well.
1:55 Five, ten minutes a day - it’s your space to become calm, to become relaxed, to practise some breathing, practise a few postures.
2:05 And just those five, ten minutes a day can make such a big difference to how you manage your asthma, and to your daily life.
Last updated: August 2019
Next review due: August 2022