Steamboat Springs Approximately 10 million people in the United States suffer from asthma, including Colorado's Amy Van Dyken, an Olympic swimming champion. Years ago, physicians suggested that their asthmatic patients should avoid exercise. This myth is being shattered as prominent athletes prove that regular physical activity improves their health.
Not everyone who suffers from asthma can aim for the Olympics, but that doesn't mean they can't exercise. Mary Bowman, M.D., an obstetrician and gynecologist practicing in Steamboat Springs, has had asthma since she was a teen-ager. At first she limited her physical activity, but in recent years she has grown in confidence and fitness. When not on the tennis courts, Bowman often can be found running, in-line skating, skiing, cycling or showshoeing.
As Bowman has discovered, following well-planned, regular workouts causes the heart and lungs learn to work more efficiently. Although asthma attacks can occur during exercise, building up endurance with a regular exercise regimen reduces their probability.
Asthma sufferers should have a thorough medical examination before beginning any type of exercise program. A physician can determine which medications can help control asthma, how the medications should be used for maximum benefit and which activities are most appropriate.
In addition to a doctor-approved exercise plan, follow these tips for maximizing workouts and minimizing chances of triggering an asthma attack:
Warm up properly. By taking extra time to warm up, you can help your body make the transition from low-level aerobic activity into a more intense workout.
Focus on low-level exercise. Exercise toward the lower end of your target heart rate can often be maintained over a longer period of time. If you would rather participate in a higher-intensity activity such as running, slowly increase your intensity over time.
Avoid exercising in cold, dry or polluted air. As your airways become cool or dry, or come in contact with allergens, you are more likely to suffer from breathing difficulties. Avoid working out outdoors when pollen counts are high.
Cool down adequately. Taking enough time to cool down can help prevent asthma attacks that often occur immediately after exercise.
Listen to your body. If you feel asthma symptoms coming on, you may need to slow down or even stop exercising temporarily. Don't exercise when you have a viral infection.
Bowman urges asthma sufferers to use medication correctly. "Be sure to take your medication on schedule and follow all of your doctor's instructions," she said.
If you're not sure where to start, you may want to hit the pool. Swimming helps strengthen your lungs and brings you into contact with warm, humid air. Walking may also be a good option to get you started.
"Regular exercise can improve your health and overall well-being," Bowman said. "It's important to recognize your asthma as a chronic illness and manage it. Consult your physician to find out more about how you can make exercise a part of your life, and take control of your asthma."
Lisa Bankard, M.S., is coordinator of Yampa Valley Medical Center's Wellness Program and Community Health Resource Center.