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How to exercise if you suffer from asthma

Even if you have a history of asthma, you can still lead an active life. We speak to doctors and fitness enthusiasts to find out how

Start slow and take precautions to be able to lead an active life despite asthma.
Start slow and take precautions to be able to lead an active life despite asthma. (Istockphoto)

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Nirav Mehta has lived with asthma since he was a child. He still remembers sleepless nights when he would have to sit up and bend forward to be able to breathe, often falling asleep when seated. While in school, most sports passed him by because running would set off an asthma attack. 

Asthma is a non-communicable disease that affected an estimated 262 million people in 2019 and is the most common chronic disease among children, according to the World Health Organization. The air passages in the lungs become narrow due to inflammation and tightening of the muscles around the small airways for those who suffer from asthma. This causes asthma symptoms: cough, wheeze, shortness of breath and chest tightness. These symptoms are intermittent and are often worse at night or during exercise, the WHO notes. While asthma cannot be cured, “good management with inhaled medications can control the disease and enable people with asthma to enjoy a normal, active life,” it adds. 

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Now 40 and an investment banker in Mumbai, Mehta is also an enthusiastic runner, having completed several half marathons and 10km races. And since the pandemic kicked in, he also took to strength training by setting up a tiny home gym with a pair of dumbbells and some resistance bands and continues to run whenever the situation is safe enough to venture out. “People with asthma can play high intensity sports provided their asthma is well under control and lung function tests are normal under the supervision of a doctor. Many International sports persons have asthma but have performed very well internationally,” says Dr Manoj Goel, director, pulmonology, Fortis Memorial Research Institute, Gurugram.

However, Mehta’s journey to his current active life has been a slow one. While he can do almost everything he wants to, he still has to be vigilant and careful about his asthma. In the beginning, he had to start slow. “Given my asthma history, I built up my mileage very slowly when I started out with running,” says Mehta. “I started with one minute of running alternating it with a minute of walking interval. In the beginning I always made sure that I was carrying my inhaler, but that was more for stress management.” He just didn’t want to be caught by an asthma attack with his guard down. 

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Doctors and coaches say that people with asthma can follow the same fitness routine as any other person provided that their asthma is under control. Moreover, Goel adds that people have to decide about how much they can push themselves depending upon their physical ability and lung function test under the supervision of a doctor. Mehta’s method for this is to be careful for the first 7-8 minutes of any run or workout. “It’s important to not overexert in the beginning for me, so I always start reasonably slow,” he explains. He still carries his inhaler on his runs and has one handy during his workout sessions, even though his asthma is not acute anymore. “It is not a hindrance anymore except when there is a seasonal flare-up. On those days I slow down on heavy cardio.”

If you suffer from asthma and lead an active life, Goel says, you must monitor symptoms such as cough and difficulty in breathing and continue your prescribed medication. “You should be regular with your medication as per doctor’s advice and must keep inhalers with you all the time. Build up your endurance gradually and avoid triggers like smoking, perfumes, smoke of any kind or any other known trigger,” suggests Goel. 

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In fact, Mehta feels that ever since he started running and exercising, his asthma has been much better and his active lifestyle has helped him with his asthma. Goel says an active lifestyle including yoga, exercise and wholesome nutrition do help control asthma, however preventive medicines such as inhalers must be continued.

Shrenik Avlani is a writer and editor and the co-author of The Shivfit Way, a book on functional fitness.

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