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What is exercise-induced asthma and how is it managed?

Exercise causes airways to narrow, which can trigger asthma.

Exercise-induced asthma is a form of asthma that occurs when the muscles in the airway spasm or tighten when someone exercises. This is called a bronchospasm. It can cause your airway to narrow and result in wheezing, cough, difficulty breathing and chest pain.

Stacy Wiegman, PharmD
Pharmacy Specialist

You should talk with a doctor for instructions on Singulair and how to take it for exercise-induced asthma (sometimes called exercise-induced bronchospasm). The doctor will probably tell you to take a single dose of Singulair at least two hours before exercising. Then, you should not take another dose for at least 24 hours.

Find out how to keep an active lifestyle while living with asthma.

Exercise-induced asthma is when kids get asthma-like symptoms from running around and exercising. In this video, I will explain how exercise-induced asthma is different from other forms of asthma.

It is especially important for people with asthma to see their doctor before starting a new exercise program. Once your symptoms are under control with the use of proper medication, and you are ready to start a new program, it would be a good idea to tell your trainer or training partner of your condition and have a brief action plan ready in case you have an asthma attack while exercising. Use a peak flow meter to accurately assess your breathing ability before, during and/or after your activity. 

Set your own pace when exercising. Don't try to keep up other people. You may have to modify the intensity level and/or increase rest periods between sets until your breathing normalizes. Warming up and cooling down periods are very important. Give yourself some extra time. Allow your body to gradually ramp-up and later, gradually ramp-down from exercise. Be patient. Regular exercise will help your asthma.

Joanne Duncan-Carnesciali, CPT, NASM Elite Trainer
Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation Specialist

You should still exercise if you have exercise-induced asthma. You should also, however, seek the guidance and/or services of a clinical exercise physiologist who is prepared to design a fitness program with the objective of preventing an asthma attack.

In fact, there are specific exercise guidelines set out by the American College of Exercise assessing what intensity the participant might experience an asthma attack upon exercising.

According to the ACSM, populations diagnosed with exercise-induced asthma generally experience exacerbations at intensities of 75 percent or greater of their predicted maximum heart rates.

Hence, if one exercises at a lower intensity they can realistically avoid an exacerbation. The participant, however, should learn to self-monitor their own exercise intensity in order to prevent an asthma attack induced through exercise.

People with exercise-induced asthma develop asthma symptoms such as coughing, wheezing, shortness of breath and chest tightness when they start to exercise.

This does not mean that people with asthma should not exercise. In fact, physical activity is good for people with asthma, as it helps improve airway function by strengthening the breathing muscles. The following are tips to keep your symptoms under control:

  • Don't exercise on days when air pollution or pollen levels are high.
  • Don't exercise outside in cold weather.
  • Breathe through your nose, which warms the air before it gets to your lungs.
  • Limit your activity when you have a cold.
  • Have your inhaler on you at all times when exercising.

Additionally, the American Academy of Allergy Asthma & Immunology recommends the following activities for people with exercise-induced asthma:

  • Hiking
  • Leisure biking
  • Swimming
  • Walking
  • Team sports that require short bursts of energy including baseball, football, golfing, gymnastics, short-distance track and field events, and wrestling

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.