Exercise and asthma

I have asthma and I am scared to exercise just in-case I have an attack

I have come across this question a number of times in fitness consultations and the first thing needed in every case was reassurance and information about why you should exercise with asthma. Looking at the positive effects and not the negative. Asthma is caused in many ways. It can also be controlled and the risk of an attack reduced.

When exercising with asthma the first port of call is to talk to your GP and confirm that your asthma is in check and controlled as best as possible. You can then start the ball rolling with gentle exercise such as walking, stretching, gentle swimming, yoga, tai chi, or pilates. All these are good starting points. Pilates, tai chi and yoga use breathing techniques, help you to relax while exercising and help to improve posture. These 3 benefits alone can help to relieve symptoms of asthma. If exercise does trigger your asthma take your preventative inhaler before you start warming up. Always inform the instructor that you have asthma and that you have a preventative inhaler with you. If you are starting a gym membership also mention this to the fitness professionals who will be assisting you in your programme or exercise routines at the earliest opportunity.

Why does exercise help asthma suffers?

Aerobic exercise improves your lung efficiency - the ability to pass oxygen into the blood stream as well as remove carbon dioxide from the blood stream. When at rest approx. 15 breaths per minute are taken, this takes in approx. 12 litres of air. You absorb or use approx. one fifth of oxygen from that air. Improving the body’s ability to use oxygen will lead to reduced asthma symptoms as you can absorb or use the oxygen available to you more efficiently. When exercising our intake of air can double! In athletes 150 litres of air per minute can be taken in. Being able to respond well to our bodies demand for oxygen while exercising reduces the stress put on the body reducing the risk of an asthma attack occurring.

What are the tests for my lungs?

The 3 main spirometer tests for lung efficiency are Forced Vital Capacity (FVC), Forced Expiratory Volume (FEV1) and Peak Expiratory Flow (PEF). These involve blowing into a small machine in a number of fashions and the results are calculated instantly. They calculate the efficiency, strength and power of the lungs.

Being able to expel 80+% of the total air from your lungs is considered normal. FEV below 70% may indicate conditions that need attention. FEV1/FVC (the amount of air expelled in the first second compared against the total volume of either FVC or VC (whichever is the greatest) is expressed as the FEV1%, it is this figure that can determine lung disorders.


In a warm humid atmosphere such as the swimming pool asthma is less likely to be triggered. This makes it an ideal environment in which to exercise. Swimming can be up to a 300% improvement above a resting state as heart rate is elevated by approx 43+% above resting. Approx. 4.5Kcal per minute are burnt swimming. The water also supports the body and blocks pain receptors making it an ideal place to conduct rehab exercises for hips, knees, shoulder or backs. You’ll be using many muscles when you swim and its relaxing and social too. (Why not check out the aqua classes available to you at your local pool).

In some cases chemicals used in the pool water can trigger asthma. If this is the case use the pool with caution. These days many options are available to pool operators that reduce the amount of chemicals they use. UV lights and Ozone are just 2 that mean reduced chemical cost and improved water quality for the swimmer. Always shower before using the swimming pool to help keep the water clean for all. The duty manger of any pool based facility should know what chemicals are used in the water so don’t be afraid to ask before you dive in!


Cycling is great for improving lung function. It also strengthens the leg muscles and that is important for many reasons. Bikes with gears are the best option because you can adjust your effort level to stay in total control. Start with small distances such as around the block and then build on this when you feel confident and comfortable. Cycling can be done stationary in the gym, at home or outside in the fresh air. Outside Cycling may cause the onset of asthma if the air is of poor quality or cold so always check the conditions before you head out. In the summer cycling can be a relaxing family activity. It is important to include exercise in everything we do. Indoor cycling can be a good starting point if you have never been on a bike before. (It’s surprising how many people have never ridden a bike!) Cycling also burns many calories. One of my class attendee’s claimed they burnt 700 calories in my spinning class. I told him he needed to work just that little bit harder next time ... Remember to set up the bike correctly with approx 10% bend at the knee at full extension when the pedal is at the bottom. If you are cycling at the gym ask for advice on how to set the bike up so you are comfortable. If a gym is not available a local bike shop should be able to help.


Walking is brilliant. It can be done almost anywhere at any time! Walking briskly for just 10 minutes extra per day can be enough exercise to improve your general fitness. It is the easiest exercise to include into your day. Walking to the car, just that little bit further, walking on your lunch break, walking the dog, weekend walks, romantic walks, morning walks ... those shoes were made for walking... sing along now....! Brisk walking should not bring on an asthma attack but as above if the air is of poor quality or cold it may affect you so double check the weather before you head out on that romantic walk along the beach or headland (with the dog!) Normal walking is equal to approx 14% rise in heart rate above a resting state, burning approx. 2.6Kcal per minute. Brisk walking can raise your heart rate by 43% burning approx. 3.5Kcals per minute. 10 minutes of brisk walking per day over a week can see 245 extra calories being used, almost 1000Kcals per month! Why not try Nordic walking or even country walks at the weekend this can involve the whole family and the dog, introducing exercise to all the family.

The gym!

This is said to possibly be the most intimidating place to work out. Instant images flood the mind of slender ladies in lycra, large men with bulging biceps and the younger ones giggling away, talking about the others they like the look of. Having been in the industry since the ripe old age of 16, I speak from experience when I say it is not like that at all. You have a diverse spectrum of people from mothers to children, elderly to disabled, people referred by the GP to people training for general health or people training to achieve that long lost life-long dream!

If you have a goal in mind a good gym is the place to be - you get the support material you need, the motivation you crave and the information needed to keep you on track. More often than not the facilities are clean and easy to use, once shown correctly. You soon meet others who have similar goals to you, so you can feel at ease and in good hands with the well trained staff.

Studio classes are an ideal place to start if you are looking to exercise with asthma. Always let the instructor know that you have asthma and that you have your inhaler with you. Take the inhaler before you warm up to reduce the risk of an attack. Yoga, pilates, tai chi or calm stretching classes are usually available on the class schedule. High intensity classes such as spinning, Hi impact aerobics, fast aerobic style dance classes, or circuit classes should be avoided to start with. These will have a high risk factor for the onset of asthma simply due to the physical exertion. Ask your resident fitness professional to advise you accordingly. If classes are not for you then maybe a personal training session will give you the motivation and information you need to get the ball rolling.

Some gyms use taster sessions of personal training when you join so you can try before you buy, ask and see if you can have a tester session for free. There are little risks of the onset of asthma in the gym other than over exertion. The air temperature is usually regulated by large air conditioning units so at a consistent temperature and the area will have staff on shift to assist you if you start to feel unwell or feel an attack starting. Most staff will have first aid training so rest assured. The gym is a place where you can undertake any form of exercise. Some gyms even have hairdressers or other health professionals such as osteopaths or sports therapists. With masses of support material, health professionals, all facilities in one place, a strong introduction and re assessment programme in place with fitness tests that will show your progress through lung function tests (as above), the gym is an ideal place to start your exercise if you have asthma.


Information contained in this Articles page has been written by talkhealth based on available medical evidence. Our evidence-based articles are certified by the Information Standard and our sources are available on request. The content is not, though, written by medical professionals and should never be considered a substitute for medical advice. You should always seek medical advice before changing your treatment routine. talkhealth does not endorse any specific products, brands, or treatments.

Information written by the talkhealth team

Last revised: 29 November 2011

Next review: 13 December 2014