Why Winter Might Make Exercising With Asthma Harder: And How to Change That

It’s time for a public service announcement as the nice people at Asthma UK have some advice that they have asked if I would impart….. and that is despite the fact that it’s actually pretty mild out there right now, winter, with its (generally) chilly air and colds and flu flying about can be a prime time for asthma attacks.

Oi, you at the back – stop rolling your eyes – and those of you about to click to the next blog, because you don’t think you HAVE asthma – the symptoms aren’t just struggling to breathe.

They include breathing fire (sorry, just seeing if you were still paying attention)…..coughing while you workout, chest tightness or feeling a bit breathless as you exercise – and if it’s not treated a) you won’t be able to work out effectively b) things could get ugly.

Anyway, to find out more I asked the Nice Asthma Folk some questions….here’s what you need to know (Helen adopts serious interviewing voice)….

How might exercising in cold air trigger asthma?

Asthma UK: ‘Both exercise and cold air can separately trigger symptoms. People with asthma have sensitive airways and cold air can cause them to go into spasm, which may set off asthma symptoms.

When you exercise, you tend to breathe faster and through your mouth. This means the air is colder and drier than it is when you inhale through your nose (which warms the air up), and, again, that can cause your airways to spasm and trigger asthma symptoms.

So when you’re exercising outside in the cold, you potentially have a double whammy of asthma triggers.’

Could this appear now even if you don’t think you’ve suffered before?

Asthma UK: ‘Triggers – like cold weather – don’t actually cause asthma. They can just lead to symptoms if you already have the condition.

But asthma can develop at any time in your life, even if you didn’t have it as a child. It’s more common for women than men to develop it in adulthood.

So if you’re noticing symptoms like wheezing, coughing or chest tightness when you’re outside or exercising, you should see your GP.

These may be signs you have asthma and are reacting to triggers.’

Why might having a cold or flu also be more likely to bring on an asthma attack – and could exercise further increase this risk?

Asthma UK:’ Another seasonal problem for people with asthma is that there are more cold and flu bugs about. These viruses are very common asthma triggers.

The latest research suggests that when people with asthma get a cold or flu, it can cause inflammation in the airways, which can lead to an asthma attack.

If you then exercise as well, you’ll potentially expose yourself to more triggers, which could make asthma symptoms more likely, if your asthma isn’t well managed.’

Obviously we don’t want to stop exercising, so what reduces risk of problems?

Asthma UK: ‘None of this means you shouldn’t head out for your run, though.

In fact, exercise is really good for people with asthma – it can improve lung function and help you stay at a healthy weight, which is important for keeping your asthma under control. And having asthma certainly hasn’t stopped runner Paula Radcliffe or cyclist Laura Trott!

The key is to manage the condition well so you’re much less likely to react to triggers. This means taking your preventer inhaler as prescribed, following a written asthma action plan – a personalised plan that helps you identify times you need extra help – and making sure you go for regular asthma reviews at your GP practice.

But there’s also a few winter-specific steps you can take.

  • You could consider switching to an indoor workout when it’s really cold ( have a look at this post to find some fun ideas for that) or at least do your most vigorous exercise inside.
  • Warm-up properly, dress appropriately and wear a scarf loosely over your nose and mouth to warm the air before you breathe it in.
  • Try to inhale through your nose rather than your mouth.
  • Crucially, make sure you always have your reliever inhaler with you, in case you get symptoms during your workout. If you exercise with others, let them know where you keep it.’

Finally, lots of people think asthma is struggling for breath –  what are the other symptoms?

Asthma UK: ‘You may be surprised to learn asthma symptoms are often quite subtle. Signs can include coughing, wheezing and chest tightness, as well as shortness of breath and waking in the night with a cough.

You may notice these symptoms more at certain times – for example, when you go to a particular person’s house (they may have a pet that triggers symptoms), when you eat certain foods or when you feel stressed.

Or you may not be able to see a particular pattern.

If you have undiagnosed asthma – or it’s diagnosed but not well managed – it can affect your ability to do all sorts of activities, including exercise. Getting on top of it could help you perform better and enjoy your workouts more.’

Here’s where to find out more about lowering your risk of reacting to triggers.

So there you have it – as an asthmatic myself I can tell you that getting it sorted really does make your workout easier.

Image: freedigitalphotos.net

Who is The Wellness Nerd?

My name is Helen Foster and I’m a health journalist and wellness author. Publications I’ve written for include Women’s Health, Reader’s Digest, Body and Soul, Good Health at the Daily Mail and more. I have also written 16 books on health and nutrition.

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