Last updated on 09/06/2021

Exercising over winter when you have asthma

Exercise can be challenging for people with asthma, but it can also have great benefits

We know that bracing the cold air can make it an easy reason to avoid exercise, especially when you have asthma.

It’s not just exercise, the cold and dry air over the cooler months, can make winter a difficult time for many people.

We know more people have to go to hospital[1] for their asthma in autumn and winter, according to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare.

During these seasons, the lower air temperatures and lack of humidity in the air can irritate the airways. People with asthma have airways that are more sensitive, reacting to various triggers leading to inflammation and tightening of the airway muscles. When we breathe in warm, humid air our lungs are able to stay healthy and clear the substances that we breathe in. When breathing in cold air, some people with asthma are sensitive to changes in temperature, this can trigger inflammation in the lungs and as it is harder for the lungs to clear themselves this may lead to asthma symptoms.

One person with asthma told us doing sport in the cold was particularly challenging. “The cold air makes my lungs feel like there are razor blades running up and down my lungs,” they said.

Another said: “The cold air makes it worse; I get tired and stuck inside.”

We understand that for many people, their asthma symptoms can flare-up overnight or early in the morning, making it harder to sleep or feel rested.

But the benefits of exercise are well established. Exercise is an important part of your overall asthma management. Asthma shouldn’t stop you from being physically active, in fact people with asthma who participate in exercise report feeling better.

Medical research has also established that moderate intensity exercise can help the airways of people with asthma.

Why exercise can be challenging for people with asthma

Vigorous exercise can bring on asthma symptoms for people with asthma. During exercise-induced bronchoconstriction[2]the airways narrow and this makes it difficult to breathe, often just after you have finished exercising.

Not all people with asthma experience this, and not all people with exercise induced bronchoconstriction have asthma.

The increased breathing that goes with intense exercise can lead to drier airways, which in turn leads to inflammation.

Your health professional can test your lung function using spirometry to assess your lung volume and lung strength. This test can assist with an asthma diagnosis and treatment.

How to exercise with asthma

It is often recommended that regular physical activity be included as part of overall asthma management, for its beneficial effect on quality of life.

If you’ve been avoiding exercise because of your asthma, it’s time to see your doctor to establish a plan to get back to an active lifestyle. Ask them what is a suitable level of exercise for you.

Speak with your doctor about your triggers and discuss how you can manage these during winter. Ask them to include clear instructions about how to manage your triggers while you exercise in your written Asthma Action Plan.

Some suggestions are:

  • to exercise during the warmer times of the day, instead of in the morning and evening when the air is cold
  • exercise inside doing something like yoga or Pilates, run on a treadmill, or use an exercise bike
  • slowly increase your activity in line with your fitness and health and be sure you include a warm up and cool down each time
  • Take your reliever with you when exercising, and listen to your body

The extra benefit of exercising outside

When you exercise outside, you can also get a bonus benefit. Vitamin D3 is created when your skin is exposed to sunlight.

There is growing evidence of its involvement in asthma management, with protective effects against flare-ups.

With shorter and cooler days during winter, and more time spent indoors, you may have less exposure to the sun and therefore less Vitamin D production.

Try to spend some time outdoors each day. Just remember to be SunSmart when you are outside.

While limited research suggests Vitamin D may be helpful in asthma, there isn’t enough evidence to suggest recommending Vitamin D supplementation as part of your asthma management. Speak to your doctor if you are concerned about your Vitamin D levels.

References

  1. Asthma, Asthma – Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (aihw.gov.au)
  2. https://asthma.org.au/about-asthma/triggers/exercise-induced-bronchoconstriction/
  3. https://www.asthmahandbook.org.au/clinical-issues/exercise/physical-activity

[1] Asthma, Asthma – Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (aihw.gov.au)

[2] https://asthma.org.au/about-asthma/triggers/exercise-induced-bronchoconstriction/


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ENT, Bird Healthcare, AirPhysio and Sanofi are campaign partners of Asthma Australia and have not been involved in the development of this webpage.