Staying active when you have severe asthma

If you have severe asthma, you don’t always need to avoid being active – find something to enjoy on your good days.

Evidence shows that staying active is good for people with asthma. Exercise builds up lung strength, boosts the immune system, and supports weight loss. It also encourages a more positive outlook – even gentle stretching or a short walk can improve your mood.

But if you’ve been diagnosed with severe asthma and you’re often getting asthma symptoms, you might wonder if exercise is good for you too, or even whether it’s possible to stay active. In a recent survey, 86% of people told us having severe asthma has held them back from exercising. And people with severe asthma often tell us “I can’t be active because I have severe asthma” or “exercise isn’t for me.”

Can people with severe asthma exercise?

It is true that there are lots of reasons why people with severe asthma might not be able to be active sometimes. For example, if:

  • you’re having a bad day with your severe asthma symptoms
  • it’s taking time for you and your asthma specialist to find the right combination of medicines to keep your asthma symptoms under some kind of control
  • you’ve recently had an asthma attack
  • one of your triggers has set off your symptoms – you’ve got a cold or the pollen count is high, for instance.

“I have asthma symptoms all the time, and it stops me doing a lot of things. I can’t go out for a walk during pollen season, and often I can’t do even gentle exercise.” – Sean Michael, 44

But many people with severe asthma have also found ways to overcome the challenges and enjoy the benefits of being active when they feel well enough:

“I find that I need to use less of my inhaler when I’ve done some exercise so I like to do as much as possible when I’m well.” – Julie Sharpe, 30

“It’s not easy, and I absolutely hated running at first – especially learning to run more than three miles – but it’s made such a difference to my asthma. It’s been much better controlled and I’ve not been hospitalised for any chest infections.” – Kate Harris, 47

What activities can people with severe asthma do?

You name it and people with severe asthma are doing it! Some people have told us they like to build being active into their day – standing up to cook a meal, gardening, cleaning or doing housework with the radio on, shopping, or playing with their grandkids. Other people have told us they like a session of more organised exercise such as yoga, walking, seated exercise DVDs, weights, swimming, badminton, gymnastics and running.

“On good days I can be more active. I enjoy wheelchair badminton and swimming.” – Julie Sharpe, 30

“I found the best way to get into running was to start by walking more, then gradually building up to running over time. I decided to start swimming to mix up my exercise routine and I also joined a running club.” – Kate Harris, 47

Choosing the right activity for you

Everyone with severe asthma has a unique experience; most people with severe asthma also say the condition can feel different from one day to the next. So choosing the right activity for you will depend on your energy levels, symptoms and triggers. If not being able to stay active is frustrating for you, talk to your doctor or asthma nurse about it. They may be able to tackle your symptoms by adjusting your medicines, or help you come up with a plan for pacing yourself so you feel more able to try gentle activity such as seated exercises, or walking to the corner shop.

“I’ve been using more weights recently as that doesn’t make me feel out of breath like cardio does.” – Peter Naylor, 52

“On a good day I can play badminton. But a bad day means not moving far at all, even the bathroom is a distance.” – Julie Sharp, 30

“What I learned is that you don’t have to completely give up your favourite hobbies when you’re diagnosed with severe asthma. For example, you can still take part in sports, but you might have to adapt them or tailor them to suit you. I could only manage to play netball for about 10 minutes, so I’d show my support from the sidelines by coaching my team.” – Nichola Douane, 39

Getting started

If you haven’t been active for a while, you’re newly diagnosed with severe asthma or you’ve recently had an asthma attack, speak to your GP, asthma nurse or asthma specialist about safe and sensible ways to start getting active again. Questions you might want to ask include:

Preventing symptoms while you’re exercising

  • Do I need to take any asthma medicines before I start an activity?
  • What should I do if I start having symptoms while I’m exercising?
  • Should I start exercising if I feel breathless?
  • Why do I feel breathless when I push myself?

Managing side effects of your medicines

  • Are there any side effects from my medicines that might be making it harder for me to exercise?
  • How do I tell if it’s being active that’s making me tired, or a side effect of my medicines?
  • How can I deal with muscle weakness if I want to exercise?
  • I’ve been on steroids for a long time and I’ve put on weight – will being active make a difference?

Staying on top of other conditions you’re living with too

  • How can I tell if it’s my asthma or another condition I have that’s making it hard for me to be active?
  • How can I make sure I exercise safely both for my asthma and other conditions that make me breathless when I’m active?

Sticking with your activity routine

When you have a diagnosis of severe asthma, you might find there are days when you can’t do as much as you’d like to do or you can’t exercise at all, but with the support of your healthcare team you can stay active. Caroline Fredericks, Specialist Asthma Nurse, suggests these tips for building an active habit::

  1. Try replacing negative thoughts with ‘On my good days I can be a bit more active by doing x or y even though I have severe asthma’ and ‘being active is for me.’
  2. Get to know your own asthma – what your symptoms and triggers are, and how it can change. You can find some helpful ideas for monitoring severe asthma symptoms here. This will help you to recognise and make the most of a good day. And it will mean you can spot and make changes (such as doing a gentler or shorter activity) or rest on a bad day.
  3. Choose an activity you enjoy – you’ll be more inclined to stick to it if you have fun. You’re also more likely to be able to do something regularly if you talk to your doctor or asthma nurse about pacing yourself. ‘Little and often’ is preferable to doing big bursts of activity that can exhaust you. Planning in advance is also a great idea – but look out for the warning signs of a bad day so you don’t push yourself when it just isn’t possible.
  4. Stay as safe as possible by always having your reliever inhaler (usually blue) with you and giving someone you’re with a copy of your written asthma action plan so they know what to do if you have an asthma attack.
  5. Take your asthma medicines exactly as prescribed − this will give you the best possible chance of managing your asthma symptoms.

You can try these top tips from people with severe asthma, too:

“Have a buddy who knows you have asthma so there’s someone to help you out if you need them.” − Abi Bettle, 28

“Don’t be proud and force yourself to go to the gym even if you’re not feeling well − it’s important to recognise the warning signs.” − Peter Naylor, 52

“Ask your GP or chest consultant about pulmonary rehab which can be a good way back into exercise. The exercise sessions are specifically planned for you by a physiotherapist so they’re tailored to your individual abilities and individual goals are set.” − Nichola Duane, 39


Last updated March 2019

Next review due March 2022