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Sports, Other Activities, and Asthma

Don't let asthma keep you from having fun with sports or other activities. Exercise is good for everyone, including people with asthma!

If you can't keep up with the other kids in gym class, can’t seem to be able to "get in shape" no matter how much you work out, or have trouble breathing after exercise when your classmates don’t, then exercise might be triggering your asthma. There are ways to manage asthma that is triggered by exercise, and having your asthma under control will keep you breathing easy while you play your best!

Just the facts:

  • The more in shape you are, the better your lungs work.
  • The better your lungs work, the fewer problems you should have with your asthma.
  • The fewer problems you have with your asthma, the better you’ll feel and the more you'll be able to do.
  • There are lots of ways to get exercise. Find one that you like, and work with your doctor or asthma educator to keep asthma under control.
  • Having an Asthma Action Plan takes all the mystery out of treating your asthma. Make sure your coaches have a copy, and know what to do if you need help.

Exercise-Induced Asthma (EIA)
Some kids have asthma that is triggered only by physical activity, called exercise-induced asthma (EIA). Just as with other asthma triggers, a person who is triggered into an asthma attack by exercise has airways that narrow and tighten after they begin exercising. Fast, hard breathing, coughing, wheezing and a tight chest are signs of an asthma attack. An asthma attack can be very serious, and can even kill.

  • Symptoms of EIA can be made much worse with seasonal allergies.
  • The symptoms usually start within 5 to 10 minutes after exercise, and may last as long as 30 minutes.
  • If a kid with EIA doesn’t get treatment, they will often keep themselves from taking part in sports or other activities. Remember, if it is treated right, EIA can be kept under control, so that kids with this kind of asthma can be as active as they want to be.

Asthma Action/Management Plans
Make sure you talk to your doctor or asthma educator about what to do before, during and after exercise to keep you from having asthma symptoms. Then follow the Asthma Action Plan given to you by your doctor. The following steps can help you and your doctor make a plan that works for you:

  • Keep an activity diary where you write down your activities and when you have asthma symptoms. It's a good idea to write down the steps you took to get relief, too, so that you can show your doctor how the treatment plan is working.
  • When you take your medication can be very important. Ask your doctor about the best times to take each of your medications so that exercising is easier.
  • When you are being active, take notice of the kinds of exercises that feel best to you, and the amount of time you can do them without asthma symptoms. For example, can you get through a whole soccer practice? How far can you run comfortably? By telling the doctor about your problems and skills, he may be able to help you improve, or help you find new ways to be active.
  • If you follow your Asthma Action Plan and still have trouble breathing while working out, tell your doctor. He or she should be able to change the plan a little to keep you breathing easy.

Which sport or activity is best for you?
If your asthma is under control, then you should be able to do pretty much anything you like. However, there are a few things you should think about when choosing a sport or activity:

Season: Does your asthma get worse in different seasons? If it does you may want to think about what season your activity takes place in. For example, if pollen makes you wheeze, spring games of softball may give you trouble. This doesn’t mean that you can't play softball. It means that you should talk to your doctor or asthma educator to make sure your medications will keep you symptom-free while you play.

Time Outs: Sometimes people with asthma do better in activities with clear-cut starts and stops. Some activities with built in "time outs" for rest include baseball, gymnastics and marching band. Sports like soccer don't allow as much rest time, and this may make the sport hard if your asthma is severe. In these kinds of sports, think about playing a position that doesn't require quite so much running, so that you can still be involved and have fun.

The big picture: An activity may seem like a good fit for you in some ways, but there may be other reasons not to choose it. For example, swimming is often a great choice because the added moisture in the air at the pool soothes inflamed lungs. On the other hand, some people have asthma that is triggered by the chemicals used to clean the pool. So look at everything about the activity before you make your choice.

What are the best ways to deal with asthma and exercise?
Try these tips:

  • Start with a 15-minute warm-up to let your lungs adjust to the bigger demand for air.
  • In cold weather, cover your mouth and nose with a scarf to help warm the air before it gets to your lungs.
  • Stay away from triggers that may make your asthma worse (for example, don't exercise outdoors when pollen counts are high if pollen is a for you).
  • End with a 15-minute cool-down rather than stopping suddenly.
  • Follow your Asthma Action Plan about using medication before or after exercise. If you're on a team, be sure your coach has a copy of your Asthma Action Plan.

  • Be extra careful when:
    • You've got a cold or other viral infection
    • It's pollen season, or a cold, dry day (if these are your triggers)

    With these added problems, even gentle exercise could an asthma attack.

  • If you have symptoms, use a quick-relief medicine right away. Don’t push yourself, stop and rest if you need to.

Remember, long-term controller medicines like cromolyn (such as Intal) and corticosteriods (such as Azmacort) should not be taken during an asthma attack because they do not open the airways quickly. If you don't know which inhaler is the right one to take for quick relief, ask your parents, doctor, asthma educator or pharmacist to tell you before you need it in a hurry.

Who says you can't be great?
At the 1996 Olympic Games, at least one in six athletes from the U.S. had a history of asthma, had taken asthma medications or had symptoms that suggested asthma. In fact, the athletes with asthma won just as many team or individual medals as the athletes without asthma.

Did you know that some famous athletes have asthma? These athletes have learned to control their asthma symptoms, and become some of the best in their sport.

  • Jerome Bettis – professional football player
  • Bruce Davidson – Olympic equestrian
  • Tom Dolan, Olympic medalist – swimming
  • Chris Draft – professional football player
  • Kurt Grote, Olympic medalist – swimming
  • Nancy Hogshead, Olympic medalist – swimming
  • Jim "Catfish" Hunter – professional baseball player
  • Jackie Joyner-Kersee, Olympic medalist – track
  • Bill Koch, Olympic medalist – cross-country skiing
  • Greg Louganis, Olympic medalist – diving
  • Tom Malchow, Olympic medalist – swimming
  • Debbie Meyer, Olympic medalist – swimming
  • Art Monk – professional football player
  • George Murray – wheelchair athlete & Boston Marathon winner
  • Robert Muzzio – decathlete
  • Dennis Rodman – professional basketball player
  • Jim Ryun, Olympic medalist – track
  • Alberto Salazar – marathon runner
  • Isaiah Thomas – professional basketball player
  • Amy VanDyken, Olympic medalist – swimming
  • Dominique Wilkins – professional basketball player

Visit the FAQs page to learn the answers to many kids’ questions about asthma. Click here to see a list of other famous people with asthma.

Adapted from "Asthma & Physical Activity in the School," National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, NIH Publication No. 01-3651, 1995 and Xhale, GlaxoSmithKline's magazine for teens, with permission, 2001