Exercising with Asthma


Today we have a guest post from our colleagues at the OSU Asthma Center, a top-notch group of clinicians dedicated to keeping Ohio State students breathing easy.

Exercise is important for staying healthy during college and grad school.  But if you have asthma, exercise can be a challenge because it can cause constriction of the breathing (bronchial) tubes and make breathing difficult.  This is referred to as exercise induced bronchospasm (EIB).  EIB is estimated to occur in 80% of asthmatics and up to 20% of people without asthma.  Athletes appear to be more susceptible.

What are the symptoms of EIB?

  • Wheezing
  • Coughing
  • Shortness of breath
  • Chest tightness
  • Excessive tiredness
  • Environmental factors such as humidity, temperature, air quality and pollen count impact EIB

Is there a test for EIB?

Eucapnic voluntary hyperventilation (EVH) is the recommended test for diagnosing EIB.  We can perform this test at the OSU Asthma Center.

Does my asthma need to be under control to exercise?

If you feel that your asthma is not well controlled, you should not exercise.  Be sure to see your health care provider for an evaluation, and if you are experiencing severe symptoms go to the emergency room.

How do I know if my asthma is controlled?

Your asthma is under control if you are able to go to school, work, exercise and sleep with minimal symptoms.  Other indications that your asthma is under good control include:

  • Only needing your rescue medication ≤ 2 times per week during the day
  • Only needing your rescue medication ≤ 2 times per month during the night
  • Your peak flow is greater than 80% of your personal best reading                                        

What can I do to prevent EIB?

  • Talk to your provider about medicines for preventing EIB during exercise. 
  • Warm-up (break a sweat) for 5-10 minutes then rest for 5 minutes before exercise. 
  • Consider exercising indoors on days with extreme temperatures or poor air quality.
  • When exercising in the cold, breathe through your nose as much as possible and wear a scarf or mask over your nose and mouth to help warm the air before it hits your lungs.

What if treatment is not helping?

There are a number of other conditions besides asthma that can cause symptoms similar to EIB, such as vocal cord dysfunction, acid reflux or heart problems.  If you are not responding to treatment, see your health care provider.  The specialists at the OSU Asthma Center can perform testing to establish the right diagnosis and manage your condition.

When do I need to see a specialist?

The following are all situations in which discussing a referral to a specialist with your primary health care provider would be a good idea.

  • Persistent breathing symptoms despite warming-up and preventive medicines.
  • You are unable to reach your exercise goals due to your breathing.
  • You are a competitive athlete and require documentation for use of bronchodilators during competition.
  • You desire formal testing or more education about EIB

For more information about living well with asthma, check out our website and our facebook page!

Cathy Benninger, RN, MS, CNP
The OSU Lung Center