Asthma and Exercise

Asthma and Exercise

What happens when I exercise?

We know that regular physical activity and exercise improves our quality of life, whether you are healthy or you have a lung condition. Many people associate keeping fit with maintaining a healthy heart, losing weight and reducing the risk of illnesses such as diabetes, but exercise also helps keep lungs healthy.

Exercise keeps lungs healthy too

Any type of physical activity counts as exercise. It could be planned sport such as running, swimming, tennis or bowls, an exercise training program, or a hobby such as cycling or walking.

During exercise, two of the important organs of the body come into action: the heart and the lungs.

The lungs bring oxygen into the body, to provide energy, and remove carbon dioxide, the waste product created when you produce energy. The heart pumps the oxygen to the muscles that are doing the exercise.

From about 12 litres of air to 100 litres of air!

When you exercise and your muscles work harder, your body uses more oxygen and produces more carbon dioxide. To cope with this extra demand, your breathing has to increase from about 15 times a minute (12 litres of air) when you are resting, up to about 40–60 times a minute (100 litres of air) during exercise. Your circulation also speeds up to take the oxygen to the muscles so that they can keep moving.

Out of Breath NOT Short of Breath

When your lungs are healthy, you keep a large breathing reserve. You may feel ‘out of breath’ after exercise, but you will not be ‘short of breath’. When you have reduced lung function, you may use a large part of your breathing reserve. This may make you feel ‘out of breath’, which can be an unpleasant feeling, but it is not generally dangerous.

What can I do to help my lungs cope with exercise?

The most important thing to do to keep your lungs healthy is to look after them. Smoking will affect your ability to undertake physical activity and reach your true potential. If you quit smoking, you are likely to be able to exercise for longer as early as two weeks after your last cigarette.

Exercising with a long-term lung condition

Having asthma should not restrict your ability to exercise or be physically active. If you feel uncomfortable during or after exercise, you should ask your doctor to investigate whether the management of your condition could be improved. In fact, many athletes have asthma and are able to compete at the highest level when their condition is well-controlled.

Well managed Asthma keeps you Active

Your doctor may prescribe medicine to control your symptoms. Inhaled steroids, a common type of drug used by people with asthma, are the most important controller medication you can take.

If you are an athlete hoping to take part in competitions, you should check whether your medication is listed as a performance-enhancing drug. Most asthma drugs (including inhaled steroids) have no restrictions, but it important to check each drug you are planning to take. By receiving the best treatment, as early as possible, you will have the best chance of competing on equal terms with non-asthmatic competitors.


If you have COPD, you will have damaged airways. This means that when you breathe out your airways become narrowed before you have got rid of all the air in your lungs. Many people with COPD find that pursing their lips enables them to breathe out more slowly and effectively.

General tips

  • At the start of your work-out, prepare yourself with gentle activities involving the muscles you will be using during your exercise (warm up)
  • Improve your flexibility with stretching exercises
  • Gradually improve your ability to exercise for longer periods (build up stamina)
  • Increase activity at your own pace, and do not be afraid to get modestly out of breath (i.e. 4–5 on a scale of 0–10)
  • Improve your muscle strength (i.e. by lifting weights)
  • At the end of your work-out, slow down your activities and stretch the muscles you have used and allow your breathing to return to normal (cool down)


If you would like help or more information about your Asthma or COPD, you can contact one of our Nurse Educators by simply clicking here and completing the form.  One of our Nurse Educators will then contact you.

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