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Exercise and activities

If you take your medicines as prescribed, and feel well, you shouldn’t have any problems exercising.

Exercise and asthma

 "Being fit has improved my asthma so much. When I was at university and not doing so much running, I would really struggle for breath going uphill and so on. That just doesn’t happen when I’m looking after my fitness." - Jo Pavey

Exercise is good for your asthma. In fact, many world-class athletes have asthma, including runners Paula Radcliffe and Jo Pavey, cyclists Laura Trott and Bradley Wiggins and footballers David Beckham and Paul Scholes.

The key message is that as long as you’re looking after your asthma well, and your symptoms are under control, you can enjoy any type of exercise, whether you choose to go for a brisk walk every day, join an exercise class, or even sign up for a marathon. And by giving your lungs a regular workout you’ll also cut your risk of asthma symptoms.

 Regular exercise can help reduce asthma symptoms by:

  • improving how well your lungs work so you have more stamina and get less breathless
  • boosting your immune system so your asthma’s less likely to be triggered by coughs and colds
  • supporting weight loss, which will cut your risk of symptoms and an asthma attack
  • releasing ‘feel-good’ chemicals in your brain to lift your mood. Studies show that if you’re stressed or depressed you’re at higher risk of asthma symptoms as a result; staying happy and healthy really is good for your asthma.

"I feel much better now that I’m fit, and I’ve noticed my reliever inhalers last a lot longer because I don’t need to use them as much." - Colin Smith

Exercise keeps you healthy

As well as helping your asthma, regular exercise is good for your overall health too. Exercise can help your heart and lungs stay healthy and keep your bones and muscles strong.

In fact studies have shown that people who keep physically active as they get older stay healthier than people who don't, with lower risk of heart disease, stroke, dementia and diabetes, as well as some types of cancer. So it’s definitely a good idea to make sure that exercise is part of your life in some form or another.

Exercise for your child with asthma

Children benefit just as much as adults from exercise and need to spend at least one hour a day doing some kind of physical activity.

As long as your child is able to manage their asthma well, and is keeping to a good routine of taking their asthma medicines, exercise will be good for them, and could give them more confidence about their asthma and what they’re able to do.

The best thing you can do is lead by example! So make sure you’re keeping yourself fit and active too.

If your child gets asthma symptoms while they’re exercising…

It could be that they’re not managing their asthma triggers as well as they could be. See your child’s GP or asthma nurse to help your child get in better control of their asthma so that they can enjoy exercising safely.

If you’re worried about your child exercising at school…

Talk to your child’s teacher to get some reassurance. You can also ask about how your child can get their reliever inhaler easily if they need it.

Top tip: Leave a copy of your child’s asthma action plan with their teacher so they know exactly what to do to support your child if asthma symptoms come on.

Starting to exercise

How much is enough?

Government guidelines say adults need to do 150 minutes of exercise a week. You might find it easier to think of this as 30 minutes a day for five days. You don’t need to do 30 minutes all in one go – if you want you could break it down into blocks of ten minutes.

Aim to be as active as you can every day. Even light activity is better for you than none at all, but to get the most benefits from exercise make sure you include activities that increase your heart rate.

Not done any exercise before or getting back into it after a break? You could start by:

  • getting off the bus a few stops earlier to walk the rest of the way
  • taking the stairs instead of the lift whenever you can
  • leaving the car at home and walking instead
  • fitting in a jog or a brisk walk around picking up the children from school
  • walking the dog
  • playing in the park with your children or grandchildren
  • getting out in the garden.

Keep moving

The most important thing is to keep moving, at whatever level you can. Studies suggest that most of us spend far too much time sitting down at home, and at work. So if you do nothing else make sure you get up and move around as much as possible during the course of your day.

Choosing a type of exercise that suits you

As long as your asthma is well managed there’s nothing to stop you having a go at pretty much any sport. But you’re much more likely to stick to a good exercise routine if you choose an activity you enjoy doing and that fits easily into your life. Have a think about whether you prefer a group activity, or to exercise alone and what time of day fits best with your schedule.

There are so many sports and activities to choose from it should be easy to find something that suits you, from swimming or walking to jogging and aerobics. And if you’re feeling really fit and well you could push yourself with more adventurous extreme sports.

Types of exercise

To get the most out of any exercise plan you need to include a combination of aerobic (either moderate intensity or vigorous intensity) and strengthening activities. It’s a good idea to include some stretching exercises too to improve flexibility.

Moderate intensity aerobic exercise includes activities such as walking, dancing, or cycling on level ground. Choose this if you want something quite easy-going which won’t leave you too out of breath.

Vigorous intensity aerobic exercises could be jogging, swimming or football. Choose this if you want to push your fitness levels a bit and get the most benefits for your overall health.

Strength training – also known as resistance training - builds and tones your muscles and includes using free weights or weight machines at the gym. Even carrying home the shopping counts towards a strengthening session!

Mind-body exercise, for example yoga, T’ai chi or Pilates, is a less intense form of strength training that improves flexibility, mobility in your joints and as an added bonus, can be great for clearing your mind.

Are some types of exercise more asthma-friendly than others?

If your asthma’s well controlled and you’re feeling fit and well there’s no reason to limit your choice of exercise. But if your asthma’s not so good at the moment, you’re new to exercise or haven’t done any for a while you might find that moderate intensity aerobic activities suit you better.

You could try:

  • Walking is a form of aerobic exercise that most of us can fit easily into our lives. A pedometer is a small device that counts your steps; use one to see how many steps you achieve in a day. To up your count, opt to walk instead of using the car or public transport.
  • Badminton or table tennis usually involve less running around than other racket sports like tennis or squash.
  • Team sports such as cricket, netball or rounders give you time to rest in between bursts of activity.
  • Swimming is a good all-round exercise, and can be particularly good for people with asthma. Be aware that chlorine used in pools may be a trigger for some people with asthma though.
  • Yoga, Pilates or T'ai chi - choose a beginner’s class which will allow you to go at your own pace.

If you haven't been active for a while, take time to slowly build up your stamina.

Staying safe as you exercise

Most people with asthma, as long as they’re taking their preventer medicines every day as prescribed, and they’re feeling well with their asthma, won’t have any problems exercising.

But some people with asthma feel anxious about exercising because it can make them feel breathless or even trigger asthma attacks.

If you’re holding off making a start because you’re worried about asthma symptoms talk it through with your GP or asthma nurse. They can check you’re on the right asthma medicines, taking your inhalers in the right way, and using an up-to-date written asthma action plan. They might be able to recommend suitable activities for you, based on your overall health and how your asthma’s been recently.

Symptoms to look out for

When you exercise, it's normal for your heart to beat faster and your breathing to become quicker. If you're doing vigorous activity, or you haven’t exercised for a while, you may feel out of breath, hot and sweaty, and your face may look red and flushed.

If you start to have asthma symptoms you need to stop the activity and take your reliever inhaler quickly to avoid symptoms getting worse. Once you’ve been exercising regularly for while you might notice that you get less breathless and don’t need to use your reliever inhaler as much during exercise. 

Stop exercising and take your reliever inhaler if you:

  • start coughing/wheezing
  • are gasping for air/very short of breath/can't get enough air
  • feel tightness in the chest
  • have trouble speaking in short sentences
  • younger children may complain that their chest or tummy hurts.

If any of these symptoms are getting worse or your reliever isn’t helping as well as it should be you’re probably starting to have an asthma attack. Follow our asthma attack advice.

Exercise-induced asthma

Exercise-induced asthma is a specific type of asthma that’s triggered just by exercise.

If you find that exercise often triggers your asthma it could be a sign that your asthma isn't as well-controlled as it could be. See your GP or asthma nurse so you can update your written asthma action plan together, check your inhaler technique and review your asthma medicines. A regular asthma review can make a real difference to how well you manage your asthma triggers.

But if you find that exercise is your only trigger then it could mean that you have exercise-induced asthma.

Your GP or asthma nurse can help you work out whether or not you’ve got exercise-induced asthma. If you do it doesn’t mean you can’t exercise at all, but you’ll need extra help to manage asthma symptoms when you do exercise and advice on the right types of exercise/activity for you. Your GP might suggest you take your reliever inhaler before you exercise.

Exercising with severe asthma

Around four per cent of people with asthma have severe asthma. In some cases, this can mean any physical activity is challenging, whereas others manage to exercise and find it helps them cope better with their asthma. Speak to your healthcare team about how much or how little activity is suitable for you.

Sticking to your exercise routine

We’re all guilty of making plans and resolutions only to slip back into old habits after a while. These ideas can help you keep going so that exercise becomes part of everyday life and you’ll wonder how you ever got along without it.

  • If you’ve got a diary or a calendar give yourself a tick every day you manage to do some exercise – even if it’s just a walk round the block. Seeing the ticks add up can be very motivating!
  • Don’t give up if you miss a day or two, or need to skip a planned exercise session, just start up again the next day.
  • Treat yourself; if you reach a particular goal or a personal best reward yourself with something you want – how about a new pair of trainers?
  • Set yourself a challenge, such as or signing up for a charity fun run - our fundraising pages may inspire you! Or follow an exercise programme such as Couch to 5k.
  • Recruit an exercise buddy – it can be easier to get up and out if you’ve got a friend to exercise with..

Top tips – exercising with asthma

  1. Always have your reliever inhaler (usually blue) with you. If you have asthma symptoms when you exercise, stop, take your reliever inhaler and make sure you wait for your symptoms to go before starting again.
  2. If it’s cold, wrap a scarf loosely over your nose and mouth to warm the air before it gets to your airways.
  3. If it’s really cold and you know that cold air triggers your asthma, it might be best to stick to indoor activities until the weather warms up again - why not try yoga, running on a treadmill, using a workout DVD at home, or even roller derby, like Team Wheezy (above)?
  4. If you know pollen is a trigger for your asthma, avoid exercising outside when the pollen count is high and make sure you’re taking the right medicines to treat your hay fever alongside your usual asthma medicines.
  5. Keep an eye on high pollution days so you can switch to indoor activities if possible. If you do need to exercise outdoors go out earlier in the day when the air quality is better, avoid main roads, and keep your workout short.
  6. Warm up before you start, with a walk or a jog to warm up your muscles and include some stretches before and after exercise to help with your flexibility and the range of movement in your joints.
  7. Tell people about your asthma, whether it’s your fitness instructor or your exercise buddy, so they can recognise your asthma symptoms and help you if they get worse.
  8. Make sure you have an up to date written asthma action plan so you know what to do if your asthma symptoms come on.

For more tips on how to exercise safely, see NHS Choices

Last updated October 2016