Even We Asthmatics Can Run
At the beginning of every year we write about how important it is that asthmatics exercise. In the words of a pamphlet I have from my stay at National Jewish Health dated 1982: “Exercise is good for your heart and your lungs. Every asthmatic should exercise regularly, no matter how bad your asthma is.”
That was wisdom that still holds true to this day. One of the cheapest and best ways for you to gain control of your asthma, and feel better about yourself in the process, is to exercise. Yet, as most of us know from our New Year’s Resolutions, that’s easier said than done.
Now, even though I still use my rescue inhaler (better known as a bronchodilator) two to three times each day, my asthma is really under great control. Under most circumstances, I am fully capable of maintining a normal quality of life.
I think I need my inhaler more often than your typical asthmatic because I have the infamous airway remodeling, which is referred to as the third component of asthma (after airway constriction and inflammation). I think this resulted from my asthma being poorly controlled when I was a child (I was a hardluck asthmatic), but it was more likely due to old asthma wisdom back in the 1970s.
My asthma is actually so good now that I even run without complications. I imagine I’m able to do this because I’m now a gallant asthmatic who takes all his preventative medicines as prescribed and avoids his asthma triggers. Nothing is perfect here, but close.
I would say my asthma is also better because I’m an adult now and my lungs are bigger, but I don’t believe that’s true considering I really didn’t gain control of my asthma until just a few years ago. So while age may make some asthma cases appear to be in remission, that didn’t happen in my case.
That said, my wife and I have been working at losing weight and getting in better shape, and we’ve been doing the Body-for-Life program. We’ve done it at least six times now, and it works like a charm, allowing me to lose as much as 30 to 40 pounds in less than 12 weeks each time.
Unfortunately, life happens and weight comes back. Now it’s time to get back on the wagon. I’ve been running (well, actually my son calls it a wog) around a track at the football field, or on the local trails at a city park, or down the streets of town with no complications other than tired feet.
A few weeks ago, however, I decided it was time to move up to the next level. So instead of running for distance, I decided it was time to do interval training. This is where you start out slow to warm up for two minutes, and then you increase your intensity each of the next four until you reach an intensity of 9 out of 10.
Then you rest a minute, and you do the cycle again. All in all, after twenty minutes you are done, but you are at maximum intensity (a ten) and to the point you can do no more.
So I grabbed my son 10-year-old son, and off to the park I “wogged” with him alongside me.
Perhaps I was feeling overconfident (I’m human after all), and as I was completing the final minute of that first cycle I decided to sprint fast as I could. My chest became itchy and started to burn like it used to when I was a hardluck asthmatic and an attack was imminent.
I turned to my son and told him my symptoms.
“You better quit,” he said.
“I’m not going to use this as an excuse,” I said.
“Good thing I know CPR,” he said, smiling.
“Nope,” I said, “I’m not a quitter.” But I’m smart enough to know I needed to rest, I thought.
After sprinting for that long miserable minute, it was time to walk slow for a minute. To allow myself time to catch my breath, I allowed myself a two minute walk instead of one.
Miraculously, the chest discomfort let up and my breathing was fine the rest of the way (something that never would have happened a few years back).
Since then I’ve continued to do this interval training. I still have to pace myself of course, but now I find I can do the entire workout without my asthma even showing its ugly face.
This brings us to a good asthma rule. I’ll call it asthma rule #1: You see, it’s all about pacing yourself. Even us asthmatics can run like the best of them, all we have to do is pace ourselves, and make sure we take our preventative medicines as prescribed, which you and I do.
However, it’s also important to know our early warning signs, because that’s exactly what that burning, itchy chest feeling was. It was telling me I had to slow down and pace myself. It was telling me if I kept sprinting as hard as I was I would have an even worse asthma attack.
So I rested. The attack subsided enough for me to finish the work out. I never sprinted again, but I still did finished the workout. Whenever I accomplish a feat like this I can’t help but feel an aura of accomplishment. I’m a gallant asthmatic, and I can run. I can imagine Breathin’ Stephen felt something like this as he crossed the finish line at the Boston Marathon.
I confess, as soon as I got home I took two puffs of my rescue inhaler (with a space of course), and then my son grabbed me by the arm and said, “Come on dad, we need to go to the basement to do our sit-ups and push-ups.”
I highly recommend all asthmatics, no matter how bad your asthma is, that you exercise. It not only makes you feel better, it makes your lungs and heart stronger. And, as you pace yourself, perhaps some day you can step it up a notch as I just did.
John Bottrell is a registered Respiratory Therapist. He wrote for HealthCentral as a health professional for Asthma and Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD).