Having Asthma Doesn’t Have To Be Your Achilles’ Heel if You Love Cardio—Here’s How To Work Out Hard and Safely

Having Asthma Doesn’t Have To Be Your Achilles’ Heel if You Love Cardio—Here’s How To Work Out Hard and Safely

Motivational fitness phrases like “no pain, no gain” kind of lose their emphasis when you have a health condition like asthma and are consistently tasked with pushing through discomfort to get a workout in. At its most basic, asthma is a condition wherein the airways narrow, may swell, and produce mucus; breathing becomes difficult, and other side effects may ensue. There are several types of asthma, all of which occur at varying degrees of severity, depending on an individual’s situation. But no matter who you are or what type of asthma you have, spontaneously sprinting a mile might well trigger some symptoms.

When a workout triggers your asthma symptoms—which is more apt to happen with high-intensity and cardio modalities—your best course of action is to pull back in the name of your health. But that doesn’t mean you need to bury your adrenaline-addled, cardio-steeped dreams of cross-country skiing or playing out your point guard fantasies.

Some background on the twin-flame relationship between asthma and exercise: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that 8 percent of the people in the U.S. have asthma, and for many, exercise can trigger or exacerbate their symptoms. Even if you don’t have asthma and, thus, wouldn’t experience exercise-induced asthma (EIA), you might still be susceptible to a different but related condition called exercise-induced bronchoconstriction (EIB).

The key difference between these two often-confused conditions is that “EIA specifically refers to asthma triggered by exercise, while EIB is a broader term encompassing airway narrowing in response to exercise, which can occur in individuals with or without asthma,” says Payal Gupta, MD, a triple board-certified allergy, asthma, and immunology specialist. This means that if you’re among the 5 to 20 percent of people in the general population who have EIB, you don’t necessarily need to also have symptomatic asthma. (It’s estimated, though, that 90 percent of people with symptomatic asthma do experience EIB.)

Again, none of this means that folks with asthma, EIB, or EIA are meant to completely ditch their dreams of being gym rats. On the contrary, a small 2019 study concluded that aerobic exercise, including muscle training and stretching, three times a week for 30 minutes may help ease asthma symptoms. Another small study found that doing a 20-minute high-intensity interval training (HIIT) workout three times a week might improve asthma symptoms. (Not for nothing, additional research found that HIIT intervention may also reduce feelings of anxiety for folks with asthma.)

While those research conclusions seem promising, they’re based on studies that are narrow and/or reliant on self-reported information. Furthermore, they don’t necessarily account for the nuanced environmental triggers that are classic hallmarks for extinguishing the fitness dreams of someone with asthma.

Making matters murkier is current guidance from official organizations offering advice that could read as wishy-washy or even contradictory to someone with EIB or EIA who wants to know if they can plan on running a marathon. For instance, according to the American Lung Association (ALA), “generally, people with asthma can participate in all types of exercise.” But, over at the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology (AAAAI), the recommendations specify that “because cold, dry air can make symptoms worse, as can activities that require continuous exertion, it is recommended that individuals with EIB avoid sports like cross-country skiing, running, soccer, and basketball.”

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