1 in 20 people with asthma have severe asthma

Exercising when you have severe asthma

If you have severe asthma it doesn’t mean you need to avoid exercise

Evidence shows that exercise 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 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 exercise. In fact in a survey, 86 per cent of people told us having severe asthma has held them back from exercise. And people with severe asthma often tell us "exercise is not for me" or "I can’t exercise at all because I have severe asthma."

“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

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 exercise sometimes. For example, if:

  • you’re having a bad day with your 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.

But many people with severe asthma have also found ways to overcome the challenges and enjoy the benefits of exercise 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

“It can be tough and sometimes I physically struggle to do some of the Taekwondo moves, which can be frustrating but it has helped me realise what my limits are and it gives me such a great sense of achievement” - Jo Simm, 44

What activities can people with severe asthma do?

You name it and people with severe asthma are doing it! They’ve told us about a wide range of activities they enjoy from swimming to weights and badminton to gymnastics.

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

“I do a lot of aerial gymnastics so sometimes I’ll be hanging upside down in mid-air from a silk and realise I need my inhaler. I make sure it’s always on the side of the crash mat.” - Abi Bettle, 28

“Taekwondo came to my attention because it’s something my teenage daughters have done for many years. I was hooked straight away and wish I’d started sooner! I now train three times a week for an hour at a time.” - Jo Simm, 44

“I got a personal trainer at the gym and lost five stone in weight. My personal trainer has spare reliever inhalers at the gym in case I run out and we’ve worked out a gym routine so I can exercise without it triggering asthma symptoms.” - Joanne Beecroft, 33

“I’ve completed three marathons and 20 half marathons since I was diagnosed with severe asthma! 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.

“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

“It’s been really hard to find a gym that will allow me to train but I’ve finally found a personal trainer who has helped me exercise to try and work with the muscular myopathy which is one of the side effects of the steroids.” - Nichola Crawford, 33

“I decided to start coaching netball teams. I could only manage to play for about 10 minutes, so I would show my support from the side lines. 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 participate in sports, but you might have to adapt them or tailor them to suit you.” - Nichola Douane, age 39

Getting started

If you haven’t exercised 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 exercising again. Questions you might want to ask include:

Preventing symptoms while you’re exercising

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

Managing side effects of your medicines

  • Are there any side effects from my medicines which might be making it harder for me to exercise?
  • How do I tell if it’s exercise 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 exercise 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 conditions I have that’s making it hard for me to exercise?
  • How can I make sure I exercise safely both for my asthma and other conditions that make me breathless when I exercise?

Sticking with your exercise 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:

  1. Replace any negative thoughts with ‘exercise is for me’ and ‘I can exercise even though I have severe asthma’.
  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 spot 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 likely to stick to it if you have fun.
  4. Stay safe 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

“If you’re doing a class, let the instructor and everyone in class know about your asthma, and share your asthma action plan with family and any few friends you train with, so they know what to do if you have an asthma attack.” - Jo Simm,44

“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 November 2016

Next review due November 2019