Staying active when you have severe asthma

How to be active and manage your symptoms

Health advice > Severe asthma > Making life easier with severe asthma

Why take exercise when you have severe asthma? 

There is a lot of research showing that physical activity for people with severe asthma helps improve their quality of life . But people with severe asthma can find exercising difficult. Tiredness, weight gain and depression are common side effects of high doses of steroids which many people with severe asthma have to take . All these side effects make it harder to exercise, but the good news is that physical activity can help manage those side effects and lead to weight loss, doing more and feeling better. 

Can people with severe asthma exercise? 

If you have been diagnosed with severe asthma you may think there are lots of reasons for not doing exercise. There are days when you can’t do very much at all, or even walking across a room is tiring because of your asthma symptoms. But for people with severe asthma, moving more can make a difference, even if that just means not sitting down all the time.  

You don’t have to go to the gym but going for a walk, doing some gardening or seated exercises also count . It’s also a good idea to start slowly and work your way to up to more energetic activities.  

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 

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 Sharp 

Choosing the right activity for you 

Choosing the right activity for you will depend on your energy levels, symptoms and triggers. People with severe asthma can feel well one day and very unwell the next, so finding things you can do on the hard days as well as the good days will help keep you active. If you’re feeling frustrated because you can’t find something you can do, talk to your doctor or asthma nurse about it. They may be able to help 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 at home. 

I’ve been using more weights recently as that doesn’t make me feel out of breath like cardio does.

 – Peter Naylor 

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 

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 gentle ways to get active again. 

Here are some questions you can ask: 

Preventing symptoms while you’re exercising: 

  • Do I need to take any asthma medicines before I start an activity?
  • What do 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 side effects from my medicines that make it harder for me to exercise?
  • How do I tell if the exercise is making me tired or it’s 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: 

  • Is my asthma or another condition that’s making it hard for me to be active?
  • My asthma and other conditions make me breathless so how can I exercise safely?  

Sticking with your activity routine 

Once you have found activities you can do, it can be hard to keep doing them. When you have severe asthma you may find there are days when you can’t do much at all. Specialist Asthma Nurse, Caroline Fredericks has these tips for keeping going:  

Stay positive
Stop negative thoughts by telling yourself  ‘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.'   

Get to know your asthma
Keep monitoring your asthma so you know what your triggers and symptoms are and when it is changing. This will help you recognise and make the most of a good day. It also means you can spot a bad day and do some gentle activity or rest on that day.  You can find ideas for monitoring severe asthma symptoms here. 

Choose an activity you enjoy
Find activities that are fun for you to do because you are more likely to stick to something if you like doing it. 

Pace yourself
Little and often is better than doing big bursts of activity and getting exhausted . Talk to your doctor or asthma nurse about pacing yourself. 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 isn’t possible. 

Stay as safe as possible
Always have your reliever inhaler (usually blue) with you. Give someone you’re with a copy of your written asthma action plan so they know what to do if you have an asthma attack. 

Take your asthma medicines as prescribed
Taking your medicines exactly as prescribed will give you the best possible chance of managing your asthma symptoms. 

What people with severe asthma say about exercise: 

Have a buddy who knows you have asthma so there’s someone to help you out if you need them.

 − Abi Bettle  

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 

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 

In 2015 I decided to run the London Marathon for Asthma UK to show people that, despite having a life-threatening condition, it’s still possible to achieve things if you’re properly supported. I honestly don’t think I would’ve been able to train and complete the marathon if I didn’t have the support of my new healthcare team.

  − Celene Dell

Last updated March 2020

Next review due March 2022